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Mystery of History
Fraunces Tavern (Photo: Arun De Joe/Wikimedia Commons)

Secrets of Fraunces Tavern

10 surprising facts about the city's oldest and most historic tavern: from George Washington's connections to the spot (no, he didn't eat the pie) to the patrons (both alive and dead) who haunt it today

No, George Washington didn’t sleep here, but he was one of its most high-profile patrons. The building that houses New York City’s oldest tavern was originally built as a private home — a mansion for the prosperous merchant Stephen Delancey — in 1719. The space then morphed into a public house, named The Sign of Queen Charlotte, before Samuel Fraunces purchased it in 1762 and changed its name. Over the years, the building housed administrative offices for a brand-new nation called the United States of America; had on-and-off periods as a boarding house and fell victim to a few devastating fires before it annexed its neighbors and became a museum, restaurant and the headquarters for the Sons of The Revolution, which bought the building and restored it in 1904. Today, the Fraunces doubles as a museum and tavern. In addition to a treasure trove of historic relics, it’s the source of tales that are just as interesting as its artifacts.

Samuel Fraunces portrait

A portrait of Samuel Fraunces hanging in the Fraunces Tavern Museum (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Samuel Fraunces was an international man of mystery
“We have no idea where he came from before he showed up on New York City records,” says Fraunces Tavern museum director Jessica Baldwin Phillips. The Encyclopedia of New York City, edited by former New-York Historical society president Kenneth T. Jackson, says he came from the Caribbean, and Phillips agrees that “the verbal tale is that he is from the West Indies.” There has also been speculation about Fraunces’s race. History books and portraits portray him as white. Phillips, who points out that he was a slave owner, thinks the confusion may have originated from his nickname “Black Sam,” which may have been a reference to dark hair, features, eyes, and maybe even swarthy skin, yet not a depiction of race. Other historians, such as Charles Blockson, curator emeritus of the Blockson Collection at Temple University, contend that Fraunces was indeed from the West Indies and of French and African descent, telling the Philadelphia Tribune that “Fraunces’s racial identity was recorded as Negro, Colored, Haitian Negro, Mulatto, ‘fastidious old Negro’ and swarthy.”

Here’s what we do know about Mr. Fraunces: He owned another tavern up the block before he sold it to buy the tavern in 1762. He was married twice; his first wife passed away and he had seven children with his second. He kept some long-term boarders above the tavern and had a staff of over two dozen. He was captured by British troops and forced to work as a cook for a general. While doing so, he spied for the Americans. After the war, he worked for George Washington as his chief steward in New York and in Philadelphia. He died in Philadelphia in 1795.

The tavern experienced two terrorist bombings
Many New Yorkers may remember when the Puerto Rican terrorist group, FALN, detonated a bomb at the Fraunces Tavern that killed four people and injured 53 during the lunch rush in January 1975. Today, a crack in the wall of the room that runs through a mural of the City of New York, on the 101 Broad Street side of the building, acts as a grim reminder. There is also a plaque on that same wall honoring the four deceased. That was not the first time, however, the building experienced a bomb attack[LM1] . In 1775, the commander of the British naval ship HMS Asia, stationed in the East River near Wall Street, “ordered a full thirty-two-gun broadside of solid shot into the sleeping town,” in retaliation for a shootout that occurred with colonists attempting to abscond British cannons from the Battery, according to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. “Apart from a hole in the roof of Fraunces Tavern, no great damage was done….but it was an effective reminder of the city’s vulnerability to naval bombardment.”

 

Fraunces Tavern entrance

The sign at the entrance to Fraunces Tavern (Photo: Courtesy of the Porterhouse at Fraunces Tavern)

George Washington partied here
Though he had visited the tavern several times, two particular celebrations with the original U.S. president stand out. On Evacuation Day, Nov. 25, 1783, when the British troops left town, New York Governor George Clinton hosted a grand banquet at Fraunces for Washington and his officers, where 13 toasts were drunk. A little over a week later on Dec. 4, after some recovery, perhaps, George was at it again, famously bidding farewell to his troops at the Fraunces. Despite reports of a “turtle feast,” Phillips says, “As far as we know, there wasn’t any food at the farewell, it was more like a cocktail hour. They drank things such as Madeira wine and beer.” After that fete, Washington boarded a barge at the foot of Whitehall Street and sailed off into history, soon to become the first president of the United States.

The first U.S. government operated here
Even as a young city, New York had real estate challenges. As the nation’s first capital, the Big Apple welcomed the U.S.’s first Congress, which moved into City Hall on Broad Street. But in a typically Manhattan scenario, there wasn’t enough room in the building. The nation had to lease extra space in other buildings, including a few rooms at the Fraunces Tavern. As a result, 54 Pearl Street was the site of the first offices for the Department of Foreign Affairs, War and Treasury.

 

Long Room at Fraunces Tavern Museum

The Long Room (Photo: Courtesy of Fraunces Tavern Museum)

The museum holds some unexpected relics
Most tourists come to see The Long Room, where GW famously peaced-out to his troops at the end of the Revolution. The museum also houses a collection of flags that depicts the history of our star-spangled banner. Among the museum’s more curious objects are a lock of George Washington’s hair; a fragment of his tooth (not wooden, contrary to popular belief); and a piece of the president’s casket. There is also a gallery devoted to the artist and amateur archaeologist and historian John Ward Dunsmore, who painted imagined scenes of the American Revolution in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Despite Dunsmore’s pains to recreate the scenes as accurately as possible, the Sons of the Revolution felt the paintings were “new” and therefore not valuable. They stashed them in a bathroom and the art wasn’t uncovered until half a century later.

Take-out and delivery was invented here
Samuel Fraunces might have been the celebrity chef of his time. He was known for his food and he had two kitchens, one sweet and one savory. In one, he would turn out British specialties such as potted meats; in the other, U.K. sweets such as syllabub, a curdled, alcoholic milk cream. He was also known for making dishes suitable for travel, and Fraunces was the first person documented to do take-out and delivery. It was far from Seamless.com, however. “They would put the food in earthenware pots, pour a layer of fat on top that would harden and seal the food in for travel,” says Phillips.

 

Opening Day of Fraunces Tavern in 1907

Fraunces Tavern on opening day in 1907 after having been restored by the Sons of the Revolution (Photo: Courtesy of Fraunces Tavern Museum)

The conversion into a museum was controversial
When the Sons of the Revolution took over Fraunces in 1904, the building was a ramshackle boarding house. In order to restore it, the Sons had to evict the tenants, which carried some consequence. Thirty-eight longshoremen were instantly homeless, as well as an ex-district attorney, according to The New York Times in May 1904.  According to the article, an angry tenant threatened to take all of the tavern memorabilia unless he was justly compensated. He also told the Times that if he wasn’t “treated right,” he wouldn’t fill in the Sons to the presence of the “cells” in the basement, said to be used for prisoners during the Revolutionary War. The Times reported four cells with rusted chains hanging from the walls. “It definitely looks like a dungeon,” Phillips says, adding that despite an archaeological study done by the Sons, nothing was found. “It would have been great if they had. What a part of history that would have been. But there’s no primary set of proof that it was used in that manner.” Today, it’s used for restaurant storage. The museum reopened on Dec. 4, 1907, the 124th anniversary of the famous Washington farewell.

It was a celebrity hangout yesterday, and today
It is common knowledge that our founding fathers, from Adams to Hamilton to Washington, hung out here. Today, however, celebrities still pop in from time to time. Says Phillips, “Leonardo DiCaprio was here when he was filming ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ He came twice, actually, as he’s a bit of a history buff. He was so sweet. He paid his fee to come into the museum.”

Yes, it’s haunted
After being approached by several “Ghostbuster”-type teams over the years, the museum chose one to conduct an investigation into paranormal activity in the summer of 2013. “It was almost inevitable for any old building,” Phillips says. The team claimed some ghostly evidence, such as voices and flickering lights, after using tools such as a spirit box, a device for “listening” to spirits via radio frequencies, and video cameras. Check out the eerie findings at the museum’s website.

 

Porterhouse at Fraunces Tavern

The chef’s table at the Porterhouse at Fraunces Tavern (Photo: Courtesy of the Porterhouse at Fraunces Tavern)

The restaurant continues to be a fine destination for food, drink and revelry
Today, an Irish company, Porterhouse Brewing, runs the restaurant, which sprawls through several rooms on the ground floor, complete with whiskey bar, roaring fireplaces, live music and 18 craft beers on tap (along with dozens of bottles and cans). Though the menu claims that the restaurant serves George Washington’s favorite meal, a pot pie, Phillips says there is no basis for the claim that the president ate it. It’s tasty, nonetheless.

Uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places with our Secrets of New York.

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