In 1817, when it was built, The Ear Inn stood just 5 feet from the Hudson River
Once upon a time, today’s Ear Inn at 326 Spring Street was just five feet from the shores of the Hudson River. It was built in 1817 by James Brown, an African-American Revolutionary War hero who, after serving as an aide to George Washington, became a successful tobacco farmer. He built this two and a half-story Federal Townhouse and used the ground floor as a tobacco shop. To this day, the house is sometimes still called The James Brown House.
After a series of owners, the townhouse was purchased by Thomas Cloke in 1890. Cloke brewed his own beer in the backyard and ran a successful saloon. This tiny building near the shores of the Hudson River became a popular hangout for sailors and longshoreman. One of those sailors, a man known as Mickey who lived upstairs in The Ear Inn, was hit by a car in front of the bar and died. It is said that his ghost still haunts the bar today.
During Prohibition, the townhouse was turned into a speakeasy with the upstairs apartment used as a boarding house, smuggler’s den and brothel. After Prohibition, the bar–which had no name and was simply known as The Green Door–reopened.
Rip Hayman, a Columbia University student who had been living on the third floor since 1973, bought the building along with two friends in 1977. To avoid having to get a permit from The Landmarks Preservation Commission, Hayman and friends modified the neon signage with black paint covering part of the B, which made it read EAR instead of BAR – named for the Ear Music Magazine Publishing Company on the second floor run by Mr. Hayman. Thus The Ear Inn was born.
The house is now safely situated a block and a half from the Hudson instead of five feet, when in 1825 landfill extended the island one block to West Street. This area was an important shipping and trading hub since the Erie Canal opened in 1825 and New York City’s harbor became a bustling center.
Today 326 Spring Street sits in the Hudson Square section of Soho and was designated a New York City Landmark in 1969. Much of the building retains its original wooden posts and beams set with pegs. The restaurant doors and windows are late 19th century. There’s no longer an outhouse in the back, of course. Today the second floor has three rooms of gallery space for exhibitions and special events called The Ear Up and live music fills the bar. Stop by, have a burger and raise a glass to the past.