Places that Matter


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Julius' interior, 2015, photo by Patrick Stancil
Julius' interior, 2015, photo by Patrick Stancil
Julius', 2015, photo by Patrick Stancil
Julius', 2015, photo by Patrick Stancil
Julius', 2015, photo by Patrick Stancil
Commemorative plaque outside of Julius', 2015, photo by Patrick Stancil
Easter decorated window, Chris J. Marchitello
Julius', 2015, photo by Patrick Stancil
Julius' exterior, 2105, photo by Patrick Stancil
A neighborhood bar
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Place Matters Profile

Written by Patrick Stancil for Place Matters and the Fall 2015 Local and Community History course of NYU's Archives and Public History Program

Located at 159 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, Julius’ Bar is at first an unassuming drinkery occupying the first of three floors of a stucco-clad building at the corner of Waverly Place. Often referred to as the oldest gay bar in New York City, Julius’ is perhaps best known as the site of the April 21, 1966 “sip-in” for which it earned such a title. That fateful evening, three members of the Mattachine Society of New York, one of the inaugural organizations formed to protect the rights of gay men, staged a protest against a recent ban by the State Liquor Authority (SLA) on serving gay patrons in bars. With several reporters in tow, and following several unsuccessful visits at other locations in the Village (at which they were either served or the bar was closed), the three men visited Julius’. They presented a letter stating their orientation and their intent to remain orderly, followed by a request to be served. As the bar had recently been raided and placed under surveillance for violating the SLA's homophobic legislation, the men were denied service in front of their journalistic cohort, and the enforcement of the SLA was published in the New York Times with the headline, “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.” The publicity from the article ignited support for the Mattachine men’s fight against the prejudiced law, which ultimately led to a state court ruling that gay men and women could not be prevented from peacefully assembling or from being served because of their sexual orientation, a landmark event and a catalyst for the gay rights movement’s inception. 

Today, outfitted with a long, aged wooden bar, dusty cartwheel lamps, and barrels from the old Jacob Ruppert Brewery used for tables and chairs, the interior of the bar still embodies the same atmosphere from almost one hundred fifty years ago. However, many of the specific details of Julius’ history prior to the “sip-in” remain mystery. A historical narrative for the bar does exist, but it is mostly constructed from tidbits of passed on memories from old-timers, bar regulars, and old guidebooks. Though widely recognized as the New York City’s oldest gay bar, Julius’ has embodied a variety of unrelated functions since its construction in 1826.
One of the earliest documentations of the site comes from the March 16, 1865 issue of the New York Times, which lists 159 West 10th street as the residence of Carrol. C. McConke, a draftee in the “War of Rebellion.” When it first opened, Julius’ Bar operated as a dry goods store with an upstairs residence. But by time the end of the Civil War, the store had been converted into a tavern known as the Seven Doors, named after its titular feature. Stories describing events at the Seven Doors are seemingly non-existent until Congress passed the Volstead Act in 1919. This particular law was infamous for enforcing Prohibition, which, in turn, ushered in a tradition of speakeasies. The legislation made for Seven Doors’ swift transition to a secret bar; with shuttered windows and a peephole installed on a side door, the bar became a destination for a surreptitious drink until Prohibition was repealed. According to bar regulars, the speakeasy era dawned around the time that the bar received its new name - Julius’, the origin of which is shrouded in uncertainty. Some stories recall that the bar was named after the then-owner’s pet basset hound, whose brass likeness lines the floor as the foot-rail under the bar. Another oral tradition suggests that there was an eponymous bartender who was so well-known at this particular bar that customers would “hail a cab in other parts of Manhattan and simply say, ‘Take me to Julius.’”
The repeal of Prohibition heralded a new chapter in Julius’ history. Joined with the West Village’s unusually accepting climate and the attraction of more bohemian clientele, the bar began to evolve into its current iteration. You can view the dual histories of a Prohibition-era establishment and a renowned gay bar through the memorabilia hanging on the walls: old vintage photographs of men and women in furs, half-naked women, and male boxers intermingle with photos of jazz musicians and crooners from a different era, all in the same drinking concern. Old-time regulars thank Julius’ proximity to Nick’s, a jazz hotspot on 7th Avenue and 10th Street, for introducing this early musical influence, as Nick's musicians hurriedly visited Julius’ during their breaks to take advantage of the significantly cheaper drinks. Legend has it that performers the likes of Billie Holiday would stop by and perform in the back room on occasion, in-between her performances while working at the nearby Café Society.

At mid-century, the bar also started to become a favorite of the neighborhood gay community. In the following years, the West Village’s liberal attitude attracted the more “nonconformist, anarchist, socialist, lefties, rabble-rousers," welcoming a steady flow of artists and writers including the famed Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. The noticeable predilection for male “artists” and “bohemians” was captured by a 1966 guidebook, which describes Julius’ as follows: “Gathering place for the ‘Improper Bohemians’ of the 30’s. Now attracts theater notables, an amazing quantity of attractive men. On weekends, tables are reserved for couples only. Beer from 15¢, their famous hamburgers 50¢.” It is important to recognize through this description that the bar did not self-identify as a gay bar until the 1966 sip-in. Long-time Village resident Jim Fouratt explains that despite having such an artistic and inclusive crowd, “nobody called themselves gay. You were either a ‘beatnick’ or a ‘bohemian.’ Those were the code words.”

By the 1960’s, Julius’ had, in fact, earned a reputation as a preppy society bar and a low-key staple of the West Village gay scene. But the soon-to-be-protested State Liquor Authority laws of the time made it illegal to serve alcohol to “disorderly” people, subtly insinuating gays and lesbians, and so Julius’ did everything it could to conceal its identity as a gay haven. According to a New York Times interview with Julius’ regular Randy Bourscheidt, “it seemed that everyone in there had gone to Yale, was dressed in a suit, and was in advertising - which was then an occupation open to gay men, unlike banking or the law." Under the SLA laws, known gay men were often ejected from the premises or forced to face the bar in an effort to prevent gay men from flirting with each other.
Julius’ ultimately benefited from the sip-in and 1969's Stonewall riots, events which ushered in newfound freedom and allowed its patrons to be openly gay in public. In recent years, the bar has served as a West Village stalwart, resisting the recent gentrification, commercialization, rising real estate prices, and shifting neighborhood demographics. Tom Bernardin, amateur historian and self-proclaimed “unofficial historian” of Julius', visits almost daily for cocktail hour. Bernardin raised money for a lamppost out front to commemorate Julius' “departed friends,” and fights to ensure that it remains a gay men's conversation bar, encouraging the younger gay patrons he meets to come back. Despite the threat of a changing neighborhood, monthly Mattachine meetings, a robust crowd of regulars, including a smattering of younger gay men and women enjoying cheap happy hour specials and infamous $5 burgers, suggest that Julius’ will stay true to its open, inclusive heritage.
"A Historic ‘sip-in’ at a West Village Bar in 1966." Ephemeral New York. June 1, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015. in-at-a-west-village-bar-in-1966/.
Bernadin, Tom. Interview by Lisa Zapol. March 23, 2015. South Village Oral History Project. Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Bernardin_TomTranscriptFinalWebsite.pdf.
Biederman, Marcia. “Journey to an Overlooked Past.” New York Times. June 11, 2000. Accessed December 9, 2015, overlooked-past.html?pagewanted=2.
Diehl, Lorraine. IT TAKES A VILLAGE--- “Writer Joe Gould inspired a book & a movie. Here are some of his favorite hangouts,” New York Daily News, June 23, 2000. Accessed December 9, 2015. writer-joe-gould-inspired-book-movie-favorite-hangouts-article-1.861141.
Dwyer, Jim. “New Wrinkle for a Fixture of Gay Life.” New York Times, January 3, 2012. Accessed December 9, 2015. wrinkle-for-a-fixture-of-gay-life.html?_r=0.
Johnson, Thomas. "3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars; But They Visit Four Before Being Refused Service, in a Test of S.L.A. Rules." New York Times, April 22, 1966. Accessed December 9, 2015.
Kirby, David. “MAKING IT WORK; Stonewall Veterans Recall the Outlaw Days.” New York Times, June 27, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015. 1999/06/27/nyregion/making-it-work-stonewall-veterans-recall-the-outlaw- days.html.
Miller, Tom. “Julius Bar – No. 159 West 10th Street.” Daytonian in Manhattan. August 9, 2012. Accessed December 9, 2015. no-159-west-10th-street.html.
Moss, Jeremiah. "Julius' Bar." Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. December 21, 2007. Accessed December 9, 2015.
“THE DRAFT BEGUN.; Drawings in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Districts. MUCH SURPRISE BUT NO EXCITEMENT. The wheel in Motion To-day in All the Districts. Fourth District. FIRST WARD. Fifth District. SEVENTH WARD. Sixth District NINTH WARD. Seventh District. Eighth District. EIGHTEENTH WARD. Ninth District.” New York Times, March 16, 1865. Accessed December 9, 2015. 1865/03/16/news/draft-begun-drawings-fourth-fifth-sixth-eighth-districts-much-surprise- but-no.html?pagewanted=all.
"West Village’s Julius’ Bar Eligible for State and National Historic Registers." The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. December 5, 2012. Accessed December 9, 2015.
Williams, Ellen, and Steve Radlauer. The Historic Shops & Restaurants of New York: A Guide to Century-Old Establishments in the City. New York: The Little Bookroom, 2002. 
(December, 2015) 

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