The Urban Lens: Visiting Gramercy’s Pete’s Tavern, where O. Henry penned ‘The Gift of the Magi’
6sqft’s ongoing series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, award-winning photographers James and Karla Murray return with a look inside Pete’s Tavern, a Gramercy favorite with beautiful holiday decorations and an interesting historical connection to Christmas. Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].
Pete’s Tavern lays claim to being NYC’s oldest continuously operating bar and restaurant. Established in 1864, it’s become famous for the fact that O. Henry is said to have written the classic short Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi” while dining and drinking here. We recently visited Pete’s to photograph its lovely holiday decorations and to chat with restaurateur Gary Egan and manager A.C. about the establishment’s unique history, connection to O. Henry, and time as a speakeasy during Prohibition.
Can you share the history of the building and the tavern?
A.C.: This building has a long history and in 1851, the first business to open here was a local grocery and grog, which was basically a liquor store. In 1864, the space became a tavern and it has remained in business under different names ever since, thereby giving us the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in New York City. In the 19th century, the tavern served food and drink, offered nightly lodging upstairs, and there even was a stable for horses in the back part of the building. In the early 1900s, when the business was called Healy’s Café, the writer O. Henry lived in a nearby boarding house on Irving Place and is said to have spent many hours at the tavern, often dining in the first booth by the side doors. In 1905, while at the tavern, O. Henry wrote the classic short story “The Gift of the Magi.”
Photo of the building when it was a “florist”
What about your connection to Prohibition?
Gary: We are the only bar/restaurant that legally remained open during Prohibition, and the reason that happened was mainly due to our proximity to Tammany Hall, which is now the Union Square Theater. Tammany Hall was the political machine of New York City at that time and politicians needed a place to eat and drink and socialize, and we were the closet place. They sanctioned the business and went along with the owner’s plans to keep the business going by disguising it as a flower shop. The front room where the bar is located had all of its windows blacked out and the doors were kept locked. Patrons entered the “flower shop” through the canopied entrance on East 18th Street. I am not sure if they actually sold flowers, but anyone in the know would open the dummy refrigerator door that separated the florist shop from the quote-on-quote refrigerated area up front where they “kept all of the flowers” and go drink in the bar area.
The upstairs bar and event space
How much of what we see today in Pete’s is original?
Gary: Everything in Pete’s is pretty much the same as it when it first opened as a tavern in 1864. The only real difference is that we now have electricity and air conditioning. The lighting fixtures are original and were lit by candles and then gas powered candles before we electrified them. The tin ceiling is original and so is the tile floor. The wood liquor cabinets and beveled glass and mirror behind the bar area are original and so is the long curved bar, which is made of rosewood. The bar used to have a cutout in it where ice was kept underneath to hold a cold plate area for a buffet of cured meats. Patrons would put down a penny or two and be served grog and sandwiches.
The holiday display is lovely. Who’s responsible for that?
Gary: I have been running this place for 30 years and have been putting up these Christmas decorations every year. It takes about three weeks to install everything. Despite wrapping all of the fragile dioramas that I put in the window every year, they always break and I have to buy new ones. I love decorating the restaurant and especially like the warm, cheerful vibe the lights give. It definitely ties in with our history with O. Henry having written his Christmas story here. Some people even complain that the place looks too dark once the lights are taken down and the tin ceiling is again visible. But this is a historic bar and we want to keep the original look with minimal lighting just as it looked when O. Henry dined here.
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James and Karla Murray are husband-and-wife New York based professional photographers and authors. Their critically acclaimed books include Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, New York Nights, Store Front II- A History Preserved and Broken Windows-Graffiti NYC. The authors’ landmark 2008 book, Store Front, was cited in Bookforum’s Dec/Jan 2015 issue as one of the “Exemplary art books from the past two decades” and heralded as “One of the periods most successful New York books.” New York Nights was the winner of the prestigious New York Society Library’s 2012 New York City Book Award. James and Karla Murray’s work has been exhibited widely in major institutions and galleries, including solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Clic Gallery in New York City, and Fotogalerie Im Blauen Haus in Munich, Germany, and group shows at the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA. Their photographs are included in the permanent collections of major institutions, including the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the New York Public Library, and NYU Langone Medical Center. James and Karla were awarded the 2015 Regina Kellerman Award by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) in recognition of their significant contribution to the quality of life in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. James and Karla live in the East Village of Manhattan with their dog Hudson.