The return of Chumley's? Maybe next year.
August 24, 2011 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Some news about the return of Chumley's. Chumley's in New York's West Village has been closed since 2007, when a chimney collapse shut it down "temporarily." The building began life around 1830 as a blacksmith's shop, and during the Civil War may have been used to shelter runaway slaves. In the 1920s, Leland "Lee" Chumley, a "Soldier, Artist, Writer and Covered Wagon Driver," [paid NYT archive link] established it as a speakeasy, with two unmarked entrances – one on Barrow Street, and one at 86 Bedford Street [Google map].

When Chumley, usually seen (according to his obituary) "dressed in a floppy hat, open shirt and wavy necktie," would get warning of a police raid, he'd call out "86!" and everyone would leave via the Bedford Street door – possibly the origin of restaurant slang for getting rid of a menu item or a customer. During and after prohibition, Chumley's became a literary hangout, frequented by Willa Cather, E.E. Cummings, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O'Neill, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck, and was the site for Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald's wedding reception (they were rumored to have consummated their marriage late that night at table 7). It also hosted a chess club (but not a genteel one – one bar fight over chess game resulted in a player's death [another paid NYT link, sorry]), and became the site of the first Go club in the U.S. – as pictured in a 1942 Life Magazine article on the game. (Note the cover of Call It Sleep on the wall behind the players – the walls featured posters for books worked on in the bar.) Chumley's later became a firefighters' hangout, especially for Engine 24/Ladder 5, the local firehouse that lost 11 men on 9/11 and had a plaque on the wall honoring them. The bar remains well-loved and many have been eager for its return; hopefully it will be pouring again in 2012.
posted by precipice (8 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
86 that origin
posted by Curious Artificer at 11:50 AM on August 24, 2011


86 that origin.
posted by Curious Artificer at 11:50 AM on August 24, 2011

As a student, I once attended a community board. Architects hired by the landlord of this building were there, pleading for the community board to recommend that the Landmarks Preservation Commission grant their permit for emergency stabilization work. All the buildings tenants, including Chumley's own and two residential tenants, spoke out in opposition. They were convinced that the structural repairs the architects insisted were immediately required were just a scam to vacate the building. The community board adjourned without granting the Landmarks recommendation, telling the architects to appear again in a month with a more compelling presentation. A week later the building collapsed. What a city.
posted by boots at 11:51 AM on August 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I used to live next door, as a student too. Chumley's was great - kinda secret, but not in a snobby or trendy way, mostly as a secret window into the past, into old New York. We couldn't afford to eat there, but the beer wasn't expensive and you could could sit at a table after the dinner rush. There were tons of places hipper or more happening, but Chumley's had a quiet warmth that seemed to make any stupid idea you had seem more solid and eternal. It was older than old school.

It's probably wishing against too much reality for the reopened place to be the same. New York is great, but the sheer mass of humanity can warp a place. Everybody wants to be at the new hot place at the same time. Let's hope there's no velvet rope anywhere near it.
posted by Steakfrites at 1:18 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The first time I ever went to Chumley's was about six months after I moved to New York, over a decade ago now. I was far, far shy of 21, and a friend and I had gone to a performance at BAM that night. I had never ridden the subway to Brooklyn before. I guess I was flush with the courage of newfound freedom when he suggested we go to a "speakeasy", because for some reason I said, great. I remember needing to feel cool and suppressing my nervousness. No fake ID, but you didn't often need one in the Village anyway.

We arrived at the front door about 10:30pm, no bouncers, nobody stopping us, and went inside. I felt like everyone was looking at me, which is doubtful. I remember the darkness and the wood and the feeling that I was in a secret place. My friend ordered two beers. I hung back, probably because at that age, I looked more like fifteen. I remember the bartender gave me a glance (which betrayed nothing) and poured the beers. At my insistence, we drank them quickly and left, I'm not sure what I thought was going to happen.

As we walked up Grove, on our way up to Famous Ray's for a slice (really), I suddenly got very tipsy. I remember turning to my friend and asking, "what the heck was that you ordered for us?" He said, "DOPPELBOCK!" I had no idea what that was.
posted by cacophony at 1:56 PM on August 24, 2011

My parents' wedding reception was there as well (I attended in utero) and I celebrated my 18th birthday there (seemed sort of fitting.)

I had no idea about the Fitzgerald reception. I'll have to tell Mom -- she'll be tickled.
posted by ltracey at 4:44 PM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Made a subsidiary of Warner.
posted by fraac at 4:22 AM on August 25, 2011

What would an equivalent "literary hangout" be these days?
posted by msittig at 7:02 AM on August 25, 2011

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