Wednesday night was like any other at Bill’s Gay Nineties Restaurant and Piano Bar on the East Side of Manhattan. A mascara-smudged blonde planted a happy-hour-fueled kiss on her co-worker’s cheek as her arms encircled his neck. The septuagenarian piano player had the patrons hollering along to a rousing rendition of “Sweet Caroline.” And upstairs, the town house’s storied ghosts may or may not have been roaming the well-worn carpeting that lines the stairs and halls.
But sadness hung just beneath the surface. Bill’s Gay Nineties, at 57 East 54th Street, which opened during Prohibition and never shut since, has started a final countdown and will be closing on March 24. Its owner, Barbara Bart Olmsted, who took the place over from her father — who had bought it from the actual Bill — said that the building’s owner, Noel Tynan, had refused to renegotiate her lease. And while Ms. Olmsted plans to reopen elsewhere, she and her employees are mourning.
“It’s like losing a loved one,” Ms. Olmsted said as she sat, at times misty-eyed, in the second-floor restaurant on Thursday, just before the lunchtime rush. “It’s all so surreal. We’re operating. We’re busy. Yet we’re not going to be here after March.”
Around her, the place stood museumlike, a direct conduit to the restaurant’s colorful past.
Playbills from the 1910s line the walls, featuring stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, along with a signed poster of Buffalo Bill. Ms. Olmsted sat at a Prohibition-era table, built with a hidden lower level so that tipplers could quickly hide drinks. Downstairs by the bar, beyond the heavy wood-and-stained-glass swinging doors, a plaque from a wine and spirits company saluted Bill’s for outlasting Prohibition: “Another proud survivor,” the plaque reads, “of those ‘dry’ years.”
Bill Hardy, a jockey and boxer, opened Bill’s in 1924 as a speakeasy with his wife, a Ziegfeld girl. The ’20s may have been roaring, but Mr. Hardy idealized the 1890s, and fashioned the place after that decade, creating what may have been one of New York’s first retro bars.
Still, the bar bore the trappings of its time and was outfitted to withstand raids. There was a lever on the bar that, when pulled, would shuttle bottles of liquor down a chute to a basement pit filled with sand so that the glass would not break. A false brick wall in the basement still opens to a secret room where liquor was kept…..