Legend holds that James Brown was an African American Revolutionary War hero and aide to George Washington. He is even rumored to be one of the men depicted in Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's infamous 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. Historical records show that a man named James Brown built the Federal style house at 326 Spring Street in 1817. While apocrypha have amassed a devoted clientele for Ear Inn, the building’s long-residing pub, facts have earned the structure itself, known as the James Brown House, designation as a New York City landmark. The powerful combination of these elements makes 326 Spring Street a seemingly endless resource for both education and entertainment. Happily, at Ear Inn, they are often indistinguishable.
Since 2006, Phillip Johnson’s eleven-story Urban Glass House has humbled James Brown’s abutting two and a half-story home. But when it was erected in 1817, 326 Spring Street competed well with the surrounding skyline and small, brick houses with dormer windows protruding from gambrel roofs. These buildings were often mixed-use, with residential second and third floors, and first floor storefronts or workshops. It is likely that Brown would have stored and sold tobacco from the front of the building’s first floor, and that the back section would have contained a kitchen.
In the early nineteen century, this block of Spring Street featured a market where butchers, fishmongers and produce sellers hawked their wares. It was also situated a stone’s throw from the Hudson River shoreline. A bronze plaque embedded in the sidewalk demarcates the original waterfront, where you can also see the tops of early wooden piers.
The Erie Canal opened in 1825, and New York City’s harbor soon became the busiest in the nation. Landfill extended the island one block west to West Street, and the area around 326 Spring Street developed into an important shipping and trading hub. In 1833, Brown sold his house to James Lewis and Bayard Blachly, proprietors of a local apothecary. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, 326 Spring Street remained in the hands of the Lewis family, who rented space to workers and craftsmen and their families. Over the next few decades, downtown’s larger Washington Market overshadowed the local market, but Spring Street’s piers hosted numerous warehouses and bustled with vendors selling a plethora of items, including oysters and coal. As the neighborhood became predominantly commercial, successful merchants and businessmen moved their homes elsewhere. In their places, landlords constructed tenements to house working-class immigrants, many of whom labored on the waterfront.
In the 1890s, the area was also replete with bars, saloons and beer and liquor stores like the dealership at 326 Spring. Owner Thomas Cloke and his brother Patrick reportedly brewed beer in the back yard and bottled corn whiskey in the basement. They turned the first floor of 326 Spring into a bar and “public” restaurant, which was supposedly the closest to the waterfront. As such, it became a favorite among dockworkers, drivers and longshoremen.
In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified and prohibition was instituted. So, Cloke leased his business to John Rolandi, who ran a restaurant in the front of the building, and a secret speakeasy in the back. Construction of the Holland Tunnel began in 1922, wreaking havoc on the neighborhood’s architectural fabric. Many local structures were condemned, but 326 Spring Street survived thanks to the fact that it was located on a private lot, and because tunnel engineers, who favored Rolandi’s businesses, reinforced the building with new beams and columns. During the tunnel’s construction in the 1920s, approximately half of the area’s residential population moved away. During the 1930s, American-born, Irish and Portuguese families who had lived in the neighborhood were replaced by sailors and longshoremen, many of whom did not live in the area for long.
The neighborhood was physically traumatized by mid-century. After World War II, the Union Terminal Freight Station replaced many of the buildings on the north side of Spring Street. In 1951, the West Side Highway was completed above West Street, thereby allowing automobiles to avoid waterfront congestion. Unable to accommodate modern shipping methods and incapable of competing with modern docks in Newark and Baltimore, by the 1960s, the west side piers obsolesced. The bar passed hand again in 1956, but it fared little better than it’s surroundings. The saloon at 326 Spring Street continued to operate, but did most of its downstairs bar business in the early morning, and its upstairs floors were frequently used as a brothel. By the mid-1960s, the business, was identifiable only by a green painted front and a neon-orange “Bar” sign. If patrons referred to it at all, they garbled it the “Green Door.”
But in 1966, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission rediscovered the Federal style house at 326 Spring Street, and three years later it was designated one of New York City’s earliest landmarks. Rip Hayman also discovered the bar, which was essentially unchanged, shortly thereafter. In 1973, while a student at Columbia University, Hayman renovated and rented the house’s third floor, which he subsequently shared with a series of roommates including Paco Underhill and artist Sari Dienes. In 1977, Hayman, Underhill and Dienes acquired the building and restored the interior. To circumvent regulations on changing a landmarked building’s façade, the group painted the edge of the neon “Bar” sign, producing a beacon that still appears to glow “Ear,” a reference to The Ear, a new music journal publishing house that Hayman once ran upstairs. The minor change signaled a gradual, but significant shift, as the old guard patrons petered out and the avant-garde moved in. The bar is still known for its lively poetry readings and music performances.
In the early 1980s, Martin Sheridan and Gerard Walker, both long-time patrons, took over operation of the business. Basement excavations around that time produced whiskey jugs and myriad other trinkets, which now line the alcove above the bar. To say that they sit in a “line” is perhaps misleading. As of 2011, nearly every square inch of shelf, wall and ceiling space is covered by "Earaphrenaglia", much of which is nautical or drinking-themed. Countless artifacts, some historic, others just plain bohemian, are packed and stacked around the restaurant in three-dimensional salon style. Sheridan, who still owns the bar, considers himself a lucky steward of the historic building and its legendary Ear Inn. “It’s not mine, it’s all of ours,” he says. “ It's a place that has mattered to people in the neighborhood and beyond for many generations. I think of it as a piece of living history - where New York's past and the present live together ensuring the vibrancy of every moment - and the future as well.”
The Ear Inn has been called the "spiritual hub of West Soho". Bought by customers/neighbors in 1977, when Soho itself was still considered the fringes of civilization, the Ear Inn became a wide open canvas for Bohemia, and hosted - and still hosts - performances and poetry readings to a varied, tolerant and sometimes appreciative audience.
Now frequented by Wall Street brokers, taxi drivers, poets, artists, and even still an occasional dock worker from its earlier clientele, stories told by staff and former staff chronicle the reign of the alternative lifestyle in this part of NYC. Bartending in bikinis - for the ease of cleaning - cats killing pigeons over the heads of diners, very-late-night canoe rides in the harbor, performance artists incorporated into the menu, are all part of the lore that goes with this bar.
The building is homey, funky, unpretentious with dark wood floors and tin ceilings, substantial but normal bar clutter and memorabilia. The staff is long-term, with a sense of history. Because of, or perhaps in spite of its eclectic clientele and its out-of-the-way location, the Ear Inn is unpretentious and maintains equilibrium in the never-ending pressures of fashion trends and hot real estate markets. Regardless of its in or out years, the Ear remains true to itself and retains its inimitable flavor.
The Ear Inn inhabits the 1817 James Brown House, a landmarked building since 1969. On a personal note, it is built on a human scale, with muffled acoustics. It is a bar for people, not moods, or effects. The smaller scale of the old building provides a human island in an otherwise industrial space. Its very holding on gives the place its value, and the inside retains what the outside symbolizes: in spite of the changes in the area over all the years, the Ear Inn is still a good neighborhood place to get a pint. (ca.2004)
This was formerly the home of James Brown, African-American Revolutionary War hero and tobacconist. The building was constructed in 1817 and is one of the oldest continuous-use bars in New York City. It has been used exclusively as a bar for over 150 years.
In a neighborhood that is constantly morphing and "upgrading," it's refreshing to see this unchanging image of Old New York, with a lively and loyal patronage. I lived around the corner from the Ear for my first four years in the city and cherished this unfussy place with so much history. For a building that was first condemned as "unfit" in 1906, the old James Brown House seems to be doing alright - but it is under constant threat from nearby development. Like the closing of nearby Our Lady of Vilnius Lithuanian church (whose bells used to wake me up every morning), the loss of the Ear would be yet another blow to the neighborhood's disappearing character.
Since it's an ancient Federal house, one of only a handful remaining in Lower Manhattan, its physical preservation matters very much.
For info: http://www.nyc-architecture.com/GV/GV055-earinn.htm  (March 2007)