The secret history of Julius’, the oldest gay bar in NYC
Owner Helen Buford with longtime bartender Daniel Onzo
On the corner of West 10th and Waverly Place sits Julius’ Bar, New York City’s oldest gay bar. Constructed in the middle of the 19th-century, the landmarked Greenwich Village building first opened as a grocery store and later became a bar. In addition to being one of the oldest continuously operating bars in the city, Julius’ is also known for its historic “Sip-In” on April 26, 1966, when members of the Mattachine Society–one of the country’s earliest LGBT rights organizations–protested the state law that prohibited bars from serving “suspected gay men or lesbians.” Not only did the demonstration lead to the courts ruling in 1967 that gay people had the legal right to assemble and be served alcohol, but it also became one of the most significant instances of gay rights activism before the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Like many businesses forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic, especially now that indoor dining is on hold indefinitely, Julius’ owner Helen Buford is struggling to pay the bills and launched a fundraising campaign this month to help save the bar. Ahead, go behind the scenes of Julius’ while it remains closed, learn about its unique history from longtime bartenders Daniel Onzo and Tracy O’ Neill, and hear more from Helen about the struggle to survive as a small business during COVID-19.
The landmarked building dates back to the 1840s when it originally operated as a dry goods store
The bar has remained closed since March, but hopes to reopen for outdoor dining on July 25
The following is transcribed from an interview with long-time bartenders, Tracy O’Neill and Daniel Onzo.
This space dates back to the 1840s when it originally operated as a dry goods store. Julius’ is actually comprised of two buildings and when you are inside you can see a little dip in the ceiling where the two buildings were connected. At one point this corner was a stagecoach stop and between the two buildings was a courtyard where they would bring in the horse and carriages.
During Prohibition, this was a popular speakeasy and there were seven doors that functioned as entrances or exits. When the City would shut down one door during a Prohibition raid, people would just use a different entrance or exit. Until around fourteen years ago, we still used the original back door entrance, which even had a peephole in it. Unfortunately, we had to take the door down and replace it during the renovation but Helen still has it at her home.
In the basement, there was an old tunnel that led across the street. It’s been bricked up due to newer fire code regulations, but when all these neighboring buildings were erected in the 1800s, tunnels were put into the basements for coal delivery purposes. During Prohibition and even during the Gay Bar raids in the 1960s, the tunnel served as an escape route.
The bar holds the original liquor license dated June 30, 1934. It cost $200 for the license to be issued under the name Julius’ Restaurant
Some say that the original owner’s dog was a Basset Hound named Julius and that is why there are all these Basset Hound footrests at the base of the bar.
The name Julius’ has different stories attached to it. One is that during Prohibition, the bartender’s name was Julius, so people starting saying, “Oh, let’s go see Julius.” Another one involves the solid brass footrests, the Basset Hounds at the base of the bar. People say that the original owner’s dog was a Basset Hound named Julius and that is why there are all these Basset Hound footrests. That’s the story I like to believe and why we pretty much use the Basset Hound dog as our logo. Because we are the third oldest bar in New York City in constant operation under the same name, the Prohibition bartender story also doesn’t make a lot of sense.
We can’t date the Basset Hound footrests but they are definitely very old and for the most part, have survived throughout the years. There are some that are missing from the base of the bar because they came loose, and we even had to replace four of them that were stolen at one point. When they were replaced, they had to make them look old by putting pits and scratches in them and dulling the brass. After Prohibition ended, the bar was legally licensed as Julius’. We have the original liquor license dated June 30, 1934. It cost $200 for the license to be issued under the name Julius’ Restaurant and it is license number 120.
Carved in the bar are the names and dates of people who drank at Julius’ over the decades.
The bar still uses the original wagon wheel light fixtures that were originally gas-powered.
The long wooden bar that we still use today dates back to at least Prohibition or possibly even before Prohibition. There are decades of carvings in the bar and it is interesting to see all the names and dates of people who drank here over the years. The wood bar itself is even propped up by vintage beer barrels!
The smaller barrels that we repurposed as seating were the original beer barrels from the bars’ beer delivery by the Jacob Ruppert Brewery. The Jacob Ruppert Brewery was established in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan in 1867 and was one of the largest and most prominent breweries in New York City and the United States. You can even see where the barrels were tapped!
We also still use the original wagon wheel light fixtures, which came off of the old ice wagons that delivered ice to the bar. They originally had been gas-powered but later were electrified.
In the 1950s, the bar started being frequented by a large gay clientele including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Rudolf Nureyev. There have been quite a few different owners of Julius’ over the years and each one of them has added groups of photographs over the bar area and in the back room. Julius’ was a pony bar at one point and there were many bookies hanging out at the bar, which is why there are many horse photographs, including lots of derby winners.
We still have many famous customers coming into the bar. Lady Gaga was here twice and she even came by herself once. Julia Roberts has had drinks here and Melissa McCarthy was also here and filmed the movie Can You Ever Forgive Me? in this bar. Sarah Jessica Parker has also been a customer. It’s a wonderful place. Even if people have never heard of this bar and then discover it, once they come in and meet the people that work here, they stay!
The following is transcribed from an interview with owner Helen Buford.
My husband and I owned this bar for the past 21 years but up until 11 years ago, I was a stay-at-home-mom and then my husband passed away. I kind of jumped in and learned to run the bar through trial and error. It’s been a wonderful experience and the people I have met here have become long-time friends and family.
We have been closed since March 16 because of the coronavirus pandemic. We tried a couple of times opening and doing takeout but because of the restrictions that our governor instituted it became so tough to remain open. If we didn’t do things right, if people didn’t social distance, if they didn’t wear masks, if they didn’t just continue to take their food and go, then our licenses would be in jeopardy of being taken away and possibly not being returned. I thought it would be best just to close to make sure that our liquor license would be safe.
So we have NO business. The only thing that is helping us now with the bills is our GoFundMe campaign. We have two GoFundMe campaigns. The first one, “Julius’ Bar Emergency Fund” I started in mid-March is an emergency fund for the employees because everyone was waiting weeks and weeks and weeks for their unemployment checks and they needed assistance. So I decided that I was going to ask people for help. I’m not the kind of person who does that. Anybody who knows me knows that it is a difficult thing for me to do. But my friends said, ‘You know Helen, just ask and I’m sure people would want to help.’ And thankfully that has been the case. I am eternally grateful. We are all grateful because we can’t wait for people to come back.
The money I raised with that campaign, which was over $35,000, was distributed among 20 employees that I had at that point. Right now we are down to six people. I had to let some employees go. When we are ready to open, there isn’t enough work for more than six people.
The barrels that have been repurposed as seating were the original beer barrels from the bars’ delivery by the Jacob Ruppert Brewery.
Now the bills are still coming in for me. I don’t own the building. I have the rent to pay and gas and electric bills. I have all the bills that I normally would have with NO money coming in. We are running out of time because the governor said we would be able to reopen during Phase 3 in the middle of July or even late July and now it has been postponed indefinitely for indoor dining. I started, a second GoFundMe campaign “Save Julius Bar Fund” with a goal to raise $100,000 to help cover my rent and bills.
I think the issue and what is important for people to understand is that if you have people inside, you can control them. You can’t control what happens out in the street. You can’t police people for 100 feet away from the bar because somebody could be coming from another bar and walking over with a drink and then I become responsible for that. I don’t want to jeopardize this license. I want to be here for the long haul. This is home away from home for me as well as the customers who have been coming here for so many years.
Hats, t-shirts, and messenger bags are being sold as part of the bar’s fundraising efforts.
Last week I applied for the sidewalk permit and I got that granted so that’s a good thing. Now, are seven tables going to sustain the bar? No, it is not but people just want to come here. It’s like everybody’s living room. It’s where everyone comes to check on everyone else and see how everybody is doing. Unfortunately, there have been some patrons who have passed sadly from the Coronavirus. So by re-opening, it will just give some people some normalcy to their lives. There are people who come here every day and talk to their friends and hang out. People just need that. Our next step is to have some tables outside and sell food and drink. We hope to have that in place by the weekend of July 25.
We are also selling Julius’ bar t-shirts, hats, and messenger bags to help raise money for the bar.
I would like to say to everybody to be patient with us. Be patient with small business owners as we are trying to do our best to work around all the rules and regulations. Just keep that social distancing and follow the rules. Help us and then we can all stay! We all want everybody to succeed so this beautiful City goes back to where it was at some point. I thank everyone for his or her donations, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. This community has embraced my son and me and I can’t thank them enough. Anything I can do to keep this place going, I will do.
To get even more behind-the-scenes details from Julius’ and hear Helen Buford and Daniel Onzo speak about the bar’s history and its struggle to survive, check out the video from James & Karla Murray below:
- NYC’s oldest gay bar launches crowdfunding campaign to stay afloat
- Stonewall Inn gets $250K lifeline to avoid COVID-19 closure
- 17 LGBT landmarks of Greenwich Village