Walking down Court Street toward P.J. Hanley’s on a recent Sunday evening, the Transom could hear the sad, sustained tones of bagpipes emanating from the famed Irish pub. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, but reasons for reveling were few, as P.J. Hanley’s, Brooklyn’s oldest bar, would be shutting its doors for good this evening—sort of.
The bar is slated to reopen with a new name as a Belgian beer garden in the first week of May, according to Ruben Alban, the pub’s manager. But even so, we were surprised to see how few people had come out to P.J. Hanley’s for one last rager before the dying of the light.
Could Saint Patrick’s Day have overshadowed the closing, we wondered?
“Saint Paddy’s Day is a thing of its own,” our bartender said. The evening before, she added, was much more crowded, but she estimated that only half of those who showed up knew the bar was shutting down.
The Transom approached a man who looked somewhat forlorn. A local, he said he’d stepped into P.J. Hanley’s to have a few for old times’ sake. “I thought it was going to be a bigger deal,” he told us, scanning the room for familiar faces, of which he only recognized four or five.
P.J. Hanley’s opened in 1874, according to most accounts, and as is the case with a lot of old New York establishments, the tavern has lived many lives. The bar originally served South Brooklyn’s Norwegian population but was made into an Irish saloon just before the turn of the 20th century. John Hanley bought it in 1956, changed the name to P.J. Hanley’s and held on for 40 years, after which time his niece and her sister-in-law took over. Some say Al Capone met his wife there, which is probably apocryphal, but the couple did in fact get married at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church a block away.
In the 1990s, our forlorn friend informed us, “It was a place where old-timers would go to eat.” That was before James McGown bought the place, and under his reign, P.J. Hanley’s was primarily a sports bar, a place to watch the game on the weekend.
Of late, the bar’s atmosphere had been languishing, according to Mr. Alban. Hence the face-lift. “Do you want to rebuild Hanley’s, or do you want something fresh?” he reasoned.
Some of the changes longtime patrons can expect include a fixed-up interior, a renovated bar counter and chandeliers.
Mr. Alban told the Transom that the establishment will remain under the control of Mr. McGown, who has owned the place since 2005, despite the fact that P.J. Hanley’s filed for bankruptcy protection in late February. (According to a recent article in Crain’s, Mr. McGown has something of a reputation for Chapter 11 filings: this one is his fourth in 12 months, which suggests it is some kind of business strategy.)
On Sunday night, the mood was remarkably subdued. A group of friends shot pool in the back room behind the neighboring pizza parlor, South Brooklyn Pizza, also owned by Mr. McGown. (It went bankrupt in August and shut down on Saint Patrick’s Day, but Mr. Alban said it too will reopen soon.) A few folks mingled at the bar. Others sat in a heated tent attached to the saloon, as an amateur rock band strummed out a few tunes.
After a while, the evening’s mellowness began to feel appropriate, the impending transition not such a big deal in light of the bar’s long and storied past, even though many locals are upset about the impending changes, according to Mr. Alban.
When the band finished its set, the Transom sat down at a table, had a beer and caught up with a few old friends. That is what bars are for, after all—whatever their histories.