Before the 21 Club: Greenwich Village Speakeasies
On this day, January 16, in 1919, Prohibition took effect, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes.” Today, the Prohibition speakeasy has become a novelty in New York City. Countless new bars and restaurants spring up in “hidden” locations and seek to embody the old-time spirit of these illegal establishments. Today, though, we look back at a couple of speakeasies found in the Village.
Famous restaurant and former Prohibition-era speakeasy the 21 Club has been celebrated in New York City histories, and Greenwich Village history is where the Club began. Somewhat less celebrated, however, are the speakeasies that existed in the Village as predecessors to the 21 Club.
Opened in 1922 by cousins Jack Kreindler and Charlie Berns to earn night school tuition, the Red Head was disguised as a tearoom. Liquor served in tea cups was about $1 an ounce. According to Ephemeral New York, the space was located off 4th Street under the 6th Avenue El at 359 6th Avenue. Researching Greenwich Village History shares that “The bar was raided by the police a number of times, but the owners were never caught. One of their tactics to fool the police included handles that would tip the shelves and drop the liquor bottles into a chute that would lead to a sewer below.” It is also speculated that tunnels existed below the building. Writer Dorothy Parker spent much time at the Red Head and said that it was an immediate hit. The space became a popular watering hole for the collegiate crowd. The cashier was Mark Hellinger, future journalist, theater columnist, and film producer. The New York Times recounts that “The Red Head changed its location, and its name, several times. With each change, it became a little fancier, and attracted a clientele to match.”
Interestingly, two present-day homages to the Red Head exist in the Village. The first is the restaurant Tertulia, which now occupies 359 6th Avenue and nicely shares the speakeasy’s history on its website, on which it says, “If you look at the front of the building, you will see a windowless 5-foot high bricked-in part of the facade, between the top of the arches and the 2nd floor of the building – this secret, windowless half-floor was the location of the original Red Head, with the legitimate coffee shop on the ground floor.”
The second homage to the Red Head is the Redhead- a current southern gastropub located at 349 East 13th Street, named for the historic speakeasy.
The first relocation of the Club occurred in 1923 to 88 Washington Place, just across the street. The Red Head’s building had been gutted by a fire. The establishment’s name was changed to Club Frontón. Notable patrons of this Club included NYC Mayor James J. Walker, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Dorothy Parker. Ephemeral New York reports that “Club Fronton had a Spanish theme and catered to artists and writers.” It had a small bar, live jazz, and a kitchen.
In 1926, subway construction began around Washington Place and #88 was taken by eminent domain. Jack Kreindler and Charlie Berns moved their establishment to 42 West 49th Street and renamed it the Puncheon. In 1928, Rockefeller Center was planned and the cousins were given $11,000 by landowner Columbia University for the building. They then moved to 21 West 52nd Street and opened Jack and Charlie’s 21. The exclusivity of this nightclub led to its prominence. The 21 Club is still around today, serving as a lasting legacy of the Red Head, Club Fronton, and the entire speakeasy culture.