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For Local Preservationist, Case of Bull’s Head Tavern at 50 Bowery is Not Closed

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Photo:  Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants.
Photo: Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants.

This past November, we interviewed Jonathan Chu, whose family is building the 22-story Joie de Vivre Hotel at 50 Bowery. Part of our story concerned an investigation by Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants, which had been brought in to find out whether remains of the historic Bull’s Head Tavern still existed on the development site. While the firm found many interesting historic objects, it did not uncover any items that offered conclusive proof that the Revolutionary War-era watering hole was located in this exact spot. Now the New York Times weighs in with the next chapter of this fascinating story.

In an in-depth multimedia piece, “New York History as Told by 50 Bowery,” the Times traces an ‘address in Lower Manhattan” that “has been a loadstone for cultural, political and demographic changes of the city.” An accompanying story looks at the archaeological dig, which took place over a five-week period. Among the interviews is one with Adam Woodward, “an amateur historian known for his renegade research tactics.” Woodward was the source of photos from the Bowery site showing “ax-hewn joists, twisted metal and crumbling bricks,” tantalizing clues of Bull’s Head Tavern remnants. Today, Woodward and the archaeological consultant, Alyssa Loorya have a difference of opinion about what was unearthed:

There were some old stones that might have been reused from the original tavern, Ms. Loorya said. But the 10-to-15-foot ax-hewn beams Mr. Woodward had photographed were in fact recovered at 52 Bowery, throwing into question the tavern’s location next door at number 50. Also, the beams had been “heavily modified,” meaning they had been moved from their original position and refitted with modern tools. Though most of the site was gutted in the early 2000s when the drugstore moved in, the real damage had been done in the 1860s, when the Atlantic Garden expanded. “There was little to no consideration to preserve the 18th-century remains when the builders came barreling through,” Ms. Loorya said. For Mr. Woodward, the Chrysalis report did not provide closure. “I don’t think the archaeological work done clarifies the debate in the least,” he said. Mr. Woodward sent wood samples selected from structural elements to the dendrochronology lab at Columbia University. The oak sample’s rings were cross-dated with the lab’s master tree-ring chronology, developed from living trees and historical samples collected in the New York City and New Jersey area. Edward Cook, who helped found the lab in 1975, concluded that one of the timbers sampled was cut for construction in the winter or early spring of 1788. “We can say that with 100 percent certainty,” Dr. Cook said. “It would be nice, if they are, in fact, the remaining samples from the Bull’s Head.” But he distanced himself from drawing any conclusions. “I provide the dates and let the historians argue,” he said. Mr. Woodward suggests that after the Revolutionary War, the Bull’s Head was extensively modified. He said it was “highly probable” that the joists and wrought-iron rose-head nails that were discovered mixed in with the beams from the Atlantic Garden were part of an original late-18th-century structure that could have been the Bull’s Head.

As we reported in November, some of the artifacts are being incorporated into the hotel. There will also be a gallery focused on Chinatown history run by the Museum of Chinese in America. Meanwhile, the Chu family and the Brooklyn-based Talde restaurant group will go before Community Board 3 tomorrow night in pursuit of several liquor permits for the hotel.

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