Bills Gay Nineties, A New York Original Speakeasy

     Bill’s Gay Nineties piano bar is located   in a 19th century townhouse,   at 57 East 54th Street. Do not be fooled by the name – it is all about the Roaring Twenties and a speakeasy.   “The Gay Nineties” is an American nostalgic term that refers to the decade of the 1890s.  The same period in England is known as “Naughty Nineties”. 



     This term became popular in the Roaring Twenties  - 1920s era – the age of  financial prosperity  and social changes, jazz  and Charleston, Sinclair Lewis , F. Scott Fitzgerald and  Ernest Hemingway.  In this decade, America became the richest nation on Earth. For the first time in the United States, more people were living in cities than on farms.  1920s is also the period of Prohibition - national ban on the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was added   and the Volstead Act set down the rules. Twenty-first Amendment  (1933) revoked Eighteenth Amendment.

   It was the first (and the last) case in US when new amendment repealed the old  one. The government did little to enforce the law. By 1925 in New York City there were more than 30,000 speakeasy clubs. Speakeasy is the slang name for the place that illegally sells alcoholic beverages.  The name derived from the practice of asking patrons to be quiet about the illegal bar’s location. There were a lot of “slang” words created in   Roaring. One of the examples is a “bootlegger” – the person who has flasks with spirit or wine hidden in the high boots.
     The house on 57 East 54th Street was built in the 1850’ as a private house and the first tenant was Reverend Robinson, a composer and a minister. He published countless number of songs and hymns Robinson  sold the house to the  grandson of  the famous C. Moore  -  the author or  “The Night Before Christmas “ (“A Visit from St. Nicholas”). Before  the creation of the story,  Santa Claus    had never been associated with a sleigh or reindeers. 

     Bill Hardy was  boxer, a jockey, a dance instructor, a Broadway dandy. He was married to one of the Ziegfield girls from the legendary Ziegfield Follies  - the popular Broadway show based Folies Bergère of Paris.

   Mr. Hardy idealized the 1890s.  He created one of New York’s first retro bars. The first floor of the restaurant  had  a lot of  sports memorabilia and was originally for men only.  The second floor  had a  high-ceilinged dining room with walls  covered with posters and photos dating from the mid 1800’s to the famous Gay Nineties. 

The third floor, The Tenderloin Room, was for private parties only and had a finely crafted bar. There was a secret liquor room in the basement hidden behind the false brick wall.  There was a special lever on the bar that can shuttle bottles with wine down to the basement with the sand on the floor so that the glass would not break.

 As the legend always had it, this bar was converted from a fireplace in the old Rockefeller mansion but recently that legend was altered when Bill Hardy’s widow, celebrated her 90-th birthday at Bill’s and was reported to have said with authority, “Oh no, dear, that bar came out of the old Delmonico’s". The famous Delmonico's restaurant   was operated by the Delmonico family lower Manhattan during the 19th and early 20th centuries and was  one of the nation's top fine dining establishments.

     In 1965, a man from New Jersey bought the business from Mr. Hardy ( a grandson of Bill Hardy) and a year later one of his daughters, Barbara, started  helping.
   She married, separated and fall in love with another man. Her father died in 1979, and since this year Ms. Olmsted took Bill’s over.
     Bill's Gay Nineties enjoyed a long, celebrated life as a restaurant and piano bar for more than 80 years.  It was one of the oldest city's restaurants. Most of the staff has been there for years and even decades. The manager and official greeter Aldo Leone had been with the place for over forty five years.
     In 2012 the building's owner, Noel Tynan, who lives in Dublin, refused to renegotiate the lease with restaurant owner Ms. Olmsted and the famous bar was closed on March 2012.

     Today there is a new restaurant “Bill's Food & Drink “ on the old place. The piano is still  there, but Elliot Paul, one of the charming guys who has played it for the last 15 years said: “ The new place looks so nice, but it's just not a saloon anymore. The renovations have been smart and careful, and there is still some live music, but the mood and the prices have changed quite drastically”  said  Village Voice in the article” Waiter, Bring Us Our Bill's”.

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  1. Ah, why didn't you create your blog and write about this place earlier, before 2012!

  2. I am sorry, but you had it mixed up with the first 2 photos on your blog. Bill's Gay Nineties closed it's door over a year ago, on March 24th. The first 2 photos are from the new place called Bill's Food and Drinks, that opened on the Old Bill's Gay Nineties place and they named it Bill's too.

  3. Thanks for the comment! The New Bill’s Food & Drink restaurant set on the place of the old one. I had to add captions to the pictures. The site of the new restaurant said: " The multiple floored restaurant that comprises a stunning nineteenth-century townhouse takes inspiration from its former tenant and is indicative of what the space used to be: one of the most infamous speakeasies during the Prohibition Era. Knowing that the building had such a rooted history, Crown Group Hospitality Partners Sean Largotta, John DeLucie and Mark Amadei wanted to expose as much of the original details as possible to celebrate its storied past."

  4. Upstairs DR has a long hidden wall mural that was discovered during remodeling. No one mentions or shows photos of it!