2010-06-23 / Front Page

181-Year-Old Tavern Set To Re-Open

By Jason D. Antos

The newest generation to operate Neir’s Tavern (l. to r.): Owners Loycent Gordon and Alex Ewen, Manager Melanie Bigan and Andy Bigan. An additional owner, David Eng, is not pictured.  
Photo Jason D. Antos
The newest generation to operate Neir’s Tavern (l. to r.): Owners Loycent Gordon and Alex Ewen, Manager Melanie Bigan and Andy Bigan. An additional owner, David Eng, is not pictured. Photo Jason D. Antos In New York City, landmarks of great architectural and historic significance often fall victim to the developers’ wrecking ball or slip away over a long passage of time. Sometimes, though, even after notable structures fall, a few historic gems are overlooked by the great surge of development and are thus spared.

Neir’s Tavern, 87-48 78th St., Woodhaven, is among the chosen few that remain. One of the oldest and most historic bars in the country, the 181-year-old saloon is one of the few drinking establishments to have been in almost continuous operation.

Neir’s was opened in October 1829 by Cadwallader R. Colden, who originally called it “The Old Blue Pump House”. Neighbothood residents pose in front of Neir’s Social Hall in 1898, the year that Queens became a borough of New York City
Historic Photo Courtesy Neir’s Tavern. 
Neighbothood residents pose in front of Neir’s Social Hall in 1898, the year that Queens became a borough of New York City Historic Photo Courtesy Neir’s Tavern.

Colden was also the manager of the famed Union Course racetrack  across the street from the present-day Neir’s. “Colden was the black sheep of the family,”  local historian Alex Ewen, one of the bar’s present-day owners,  said. “His family didn’t care much for his career as a horse racer.” 

Colden’s great-grandfather, Cadwallader Colden (1688–1776),  served as lieutenant governor of the Providence of New York and was also a historian, scientist and philosopher. His cousin, Cadwallader D. Colden, was the mayor of New York City from 1818 to 1821 and a congressmember.

In 1835, the Blue Pump House was renamed  “The Old Abbey”. Around this time the once lucrative Union Course racetrack began to decline. The renamed establishment adjacent to it gained a reputation for being a place where thieves and aggressive men came to drink and cause trouble after losing at the races. The Union Course racetrack was also gaining an equally notorious reputation as it brought crime into the area.

Later that year the business was purchased by Nathan F. Graves, a local politician and banker, who cleaned up the bar’s image and remained the proprietor for almost 40 years.

When the racetrack closed down in 1898, the tavern was purchased by Louis Neir, who made dramatic renovations when he added a ballroom and a bowling alley and created an upstairs with rooms used for lodging.  It was renamed “Neir's Social Hall”.

As the 20th century progressed, local celebrities, including stars of the stage and screen, frequented the tavern. It was in its  rear ballroom that film legend Mae West, born only a few blocks from Neir’s, first performed. W.C. Fields also wet his whistle, ordering drinks that were served to him on what is today a 150-year-old mahogany bar.

Other notable guests included Fred Trump, Donald's father. In 1990, Neir’s gained international recognition and legendary status when it was prominently featured in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”, which stared Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco,

“That’s where Bill Batts told Pesci to get his shine box,” Andy Bigan, another of the bar’s owners, said as he pointed to the spot at the end of the bar.

The Neir family sold the place in 1967. It then became the Union Course Tavern. 

In 2009, the tavern was closed for eight months for restoration, including refinishing and fixtures, and has reopened once again as “Neir’s”. The grand reopening this Thursday, June 24, will continue on into Saturday with a barbecue.

“Before we took over,  people had paint chips falling into their beer,” Loycent Gordon, another co-owner, said.

“We want this bar to remain as a place where generations of Woodhaven and Queens residents continue to come,” Manager Melanie Bigan added.

The new owners hope to create poetry  and jam session nights and eventually serve meals.

“We want this historic place to belong to everyone,” Gordon said.

For more information, visit www.neirstavern.com.

 

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