Billy’s Bar in New York – Part III

Seek and ye Shall Find

In two earlier posts I discussed aspects of Billy’s, a pre-Prohibition saloon in New York that revived with Repeal in 1933. It endured as a venerated bar and steakhouse until about a dozen years ago.

See this post for Part I, and this one for Part II.

This new post is Part III, as additional information was uncovered that answers a couple of questions I posed earlier.

Archer Winsten was a syndicated columnist from the 30s-80s, specializing in film and entertainment.

His work often had a “city” quality given that New York and other big cities were nerve-centres for film and theatrical production and exhibition. Actors and other professionals of the field frequented bars and parties whose fashionable or other particular qualities got the attention of arts beagles like Archer Winsten.

In a column in the New York Post on March 20, 1935* he profiled Billy’s. The owner, Billy Condron, Jr., a descendant of the founder (the surname is spelled Condren in some accounts) insisted on retaining gas lamps from the gilded age, even at an outsize cost.

This is the only gas-lighted saloon in the city and is well worth the trip over if you don’t live nearby in Sutton or Beekman Place. Lots of peo­ple coming in don’t know enough about gas light­ing to be sure they’re looking at gas mantles. Billy Condron, Jr., on duty at night, obligingly turns them up and down and waits for the “I’ll be darned.”

Electricity had rendered the necessary “gas mantles” rare and expensive. My earlier work suggests that Condron, Jr. finally dispensed with the old lighting kit a few years later. But clearly in mid-1935 it was still in place, as the above image shows.

Winsten also had interesting things to say about the English-style beer pumps still on the bar, and the beer that once flowed through them:

Another feature, always mentioned in stories about the place (John Chapman, O. O. Mclntyre, the New Yorker, etc.), is the old-fashioned hand-pumped beer spigots, now in disuse but brightly polished. They used to pour forth new ale, musty ale, old ale, cream ale, stock ale, still ale, porter and stout from huge hogsheads at cellar tempera­ture. They don’t make hogsheads that big any more; they don’t make the ales, and people don’t ask for them.

It’s of interest that numerous writers, and no less than New Yorker magazine, took notice of now antique-looking handpumps and their curved housing. They of course dispensed cask ale and stout in the day, as famously they do still (ahem) in the U.K., and many places in North America again due to the Beer Revolution.

Yet by 1935 in New York the pumps were démodé, decoration: no beer was served from them, it is now clear. I think they may have dispensed ice water due to the pitchers pictured, but Winsten doesn’t state that.

His comments about old beer types being passé including musty ale, subject of a lengthy article of mine in Brewery History, here, are somewhat perfunctory. 

Some pre-lager beer styles did survive Prohibition, so he was not quite accurate, but it’s true that the refinements of “still ale” or “old ale”, say, had gone with the wind, so to speak.

Certainly, most or all of the ale and porter re-introduced post-Repeal was served cold and carbonated. This included apparently the famed Ballantine India Pale Ale, although we think it possible stray barrels were made available “on cask” into the 1940s.

Be that as it may, musty ale certainly had disappeared for practical purposes after Repeal.

Winsten’s statement that no one calls for the ales anymore is also disingenuous. It is an old gambit of the licensed trade to state no one asks for things they don’t offer. Frequently they don’t offer them because brewers decided to stop making them. If something isn’t offered and promoted, no one will ask for it, it stands to reason.

Of course the producers blame the public, who doesn’t ask for it, and it’s a vicious circle.

The circle was broken by intrepid craft brewers about 40 years ago. They stopped taking pat knowledge and the old commonplaces for granted.

IPA as reinvented by them found many people “… asking for the ales…”, finally.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the digital collection of the New York Public Library, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Via the Fulton Historical newspaper collection, here.


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