New York City’s Pfaff Beer Cellar on Broadway

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The nineteenth-century New York City beer cellar of Charles Pfaff attracted writers, artists, performers, and journalists referred to as Bohemians.

The establishment opened by immigrant Charles Ignatius Pfaff on Broadway near Bleecker Street flourished between 1860 and 1875 with regular patronage of unconventional people who were labelled Bohemians. Located near entertainment venues such as the Laura Keene Theatre (renamed the Olympic), it was patronized by large numbers of performers.

Pfaff’s on Broadway near Bleecker Street

A model host in his quaint, below-street-level ‘vault’, Pfaff showed great concern for his customers’ comfort, and maintained a clean establishment which he enlarged to a full restaurant in 1864. With excellent food that included wonderful cheeses and large German pancakes, beer, and fine Rhine wine, it was highly popular.

Pfaff’s beer cellar was favoured by ‘Bohemians’ (often referred to as Pfaffians) as a place where they could participate in lively discussions and enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded individuals. As defined in France, ‘Bohemians’ were intellectuals with no visible means of income who wanted to work in the arts. Members of the crowd were well-qualified for the label, and enjoyed it as a way of distinguishing themselves from the rest of society.

Charles Pfaff was not a learned man, but he enjoyed the company of his creative, unconventional patrons. Aside from the bar and room where small tables were available for customers, Pfaff had a great long table in a low-ceilinged inner vault where the regulars gathered. A kindly man, he accommodated his clientele by lending money to those who struggled, gave free food to beggars, and kept the beer cellar open all night until poets concluded their verse-making contests.

Henry Clapp Jr. “King of Bohemia”

Henry Clapp, journalist and editor, reigned over Pfaff’s large table as the “King of Bohemia” while as many as thirty people joined in the witty, illuminating conversations. Sceptical and daring, Clapp drew the attention of others in the room with his stories and criticisms of the cultured elite. His influential literary magazine The New York Saturday Press offered reviews, columns, and works received from ambitious, aspiring writers.

Walt Whitman at Pfaff’s Beer Cellar

Poet, essayist Walt Whitman received little notice for his early edition of Leaves of Grass, but with positive appraisals in the Saturday Press, he became a regular at Pfaff’s. Clapp enthusiastically championed the work of Whitman who later stated that his story could not be told without inclusion of Henry Clapp Jr. Whitman seldom joined in the rapid-fire conversations, but preferred to observe his unconventional friends and absorb the atmosphere.

Ada Clare in Pfaff Inner Circle

One of the few women in the inner circle at the Pfaff establishment was actress-poet Ada Clare (real name Jane McElheny) who, like Henry Clapp Jr., spent some time in Paris and embraced the Bohemian lifestyle. Named the “Queen of Bohemia”, she arranged poetry contests at Pfaff’s and participated fully in literary activities and celebrations. A weekly columnist for Clapp’s Saturday Press, Clare also wrote poetry and fictional works that included a novel.

Charles Pfaff closed the beer cellar and moved north to his new establishment on 24th Street near Broadway in 1876. When Whitman visited him in 1881, the two men drank champagne and remembered the departed Bohemians of Pfaff’s beer cellar.