The Brooklyn Inn is one of Brooklyn’s oldest bars. Opened in 1885, it stands at the corner of Bergen and Hoyt streets in Boerum Hill.
It’s got a ton of history, exhaustively detailed in the book Hoyt and Bergen Streets by Joel Shifflet.
A local architect, he became fascinated with the bar’s design as well as the story of the place. The self-published effort, which features historic images of the bar through the years, can be purchased at the Brooklyn Inn.
Brownstoner caught up with Shifflet to find out more about this historic watering hole.
Brownstoner: As an architect, what is your favorite feature of the bar?
Shifflet: The proportions of the space are perfect. It is such a comfortable room to be in. The faded luxury is also a part of this comfort. Saloons like this were designed and built to be elegant, and the high ceiling, woodwork, stained glass, and mirror are part of creating this quality. Also, I thought the elements of the interior revealed their age and could be “read” — that we could look at them and feel, possibly know, what people before us experienced.
What about the Brooklyn Inn’s history struck you the most?
I was struck most by the fact the bar was completely German. All of the owners were German from its construction in 1885 until 1956 when it was sold to an Italian-American. Also, the brewery that financed the bar and owned it for a while (1896-1919) was the Otto Huber Brewery and German-American. Their whole network of architects, contractors, woodworkers, liquor license officials, and social clubs were all German too.
The bar history is integral to the City’s history. I learned about liquor politics, the social clubs, the German community, even the trolley system since a track ran down Bergen and Hoyt streets. One of the trolley company owners objected to the bar opening.
The bar has had various iterations over the years. What are some of those?
Owner Anton Zeiner converted the original house into a bar in 1885. After he died, his widow, Marie Zeiner, added the back room in 1892 and the woodwork we see. She had a huge debt to the brewery and ultimately sold it to them in 1896, and then tenant German bartenders ran it. In 1912, the Heissenbuttel family ran it and later owned it in 1919. It stayed open during Prohibition and secretly sold alcohol, once being caught and shut down for eight months.
It was owned by Mickey Castellano in the 1960s and then a few others in the 1970s. Some neighbors remember Karen Hubert and her husband Leonard Allison ran a restaurant there in the early 1980s called Hubert’s. The current owners bought it in 1990.
What is most impressive is that the bar changed so little over 131 years. We are largely looking at the bar, both the interior and exterior, that existed in the 1880s and ’90s. The changes are relatively minor.
What inspired you to write the book?
One of the regulars knew I had been researching the history and thought I should write it down. Over the course of nine years I had gathered up so much information, I wanted to share it with people who knew the place and would appreciate it.
What are some of most interesting facts you uncovered?
One of the mysteries of the bar was the origin of the woodwork. The rumor was that it came from Germany. However, I didn’t think this made sense. There were several bar woodwork shops in New York City and Brooklyn — why import it? Also, bars don’t look like this in Germany. This is a classic American saloon with a few German details. I had a breakthrough in my research when I discovered a newspaper article describing a fire in a bar woodwork factory in Bushwick, as it turns out, owned by the Otto Huber Brewery. Since they financed the construction of the bar and provided the beer, liquor, cigars, glassware, etc., they probably provided the woodwork. And they owned the factory to make it.
I discovered Edward Melzer, a Bohemian woodworker, ran the factory and I found his great granddaughter, who told me he built a lot of bars, including part of Luchow’s, the famous German restaurant that used to be at Union Square. She sent me a photo of him. Gathering photographs of the people involved helped make the history less abstract and more personal, so I included his in the book.
One of the German details I discovered is the carving under the bar top includes a symbol called the Valknut. It is associated with the Germanic god Odin, and the three parts symbolize physical capability, inspiration and intoxication.
What is your hope for people to take away from your work about the Brooklyn Inn?
A respect for the bar and by extension, the architectural history of Brooklyn. So much new building has occurred in Brooklyn over the past 20 years, we’re getting used to it, and even expect our surroundings to be new. But there is little depth to these new buildings, neither in design nor in the stories surrounding them. Often when I hear about a new building, the comment is actually about what used to be there, instead of what someone decided to build today. The history of Brooklyn is embodied in the old buildings and makes living here such a rich experience. It is too easy to replace history.
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