Volume 76, Number 46 | April 11 - 17, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Firefighters responded to a chimney collapse at 86 Bedford St. (covered in netting) last week. The neighboring building to its right has apartments still vacant (with windows covered by plywood) from a similar chimney collapse last May.

Chumley’s almost 86ed by chimney collapse

By Albert Amateau and Jefferson Siegel

Chumley’s, a renowned Village hangout since Lee Chumley opened a speakeasy in 1928 in an old blacksmith shop near the corner of Bedford and Barrow Sts., had been closed for about three weeks when the chimney separated from an interior wall on Thursday afternoon and collapsed into the bar area.

A foreman and five workers from the crew hired to replace the buckling facade of the landmarked building at 86 Bedford St. were in the bar area around 1:40 p.m. April 4 when they heard a long, loud cracking sound and beat a hasty retreat.

No one was injured.

It turned out that the contractor hired by the building owner to replace the facade of the 1831 building had been working on the interior, even though the Department of Buildings had issued a permit only for exterior work.

The collapse was not visible from the outside of the building, which was hidden behind a sidewalk shed and netting, support columns and cables installed three weeks ago to prevent the exterior Bedford St. wall from crashing down.

But firefighters who arrived just before 2 p.m. were concerned about further collapse and closed Bedford St. from Seventh Ave. S. to Hudson St., and closed Barrow St. from Seventh Ave. S. to Commerce St.

Deputy Chief John Bley said that a 10-foot-high and 6-foot-wide interior wall section about a foot thick — an original part of the 1831 building — had collapsed. At first, Fire Department officials and Department of Buildings inspectors were anxious about an interior load-bearing wall and were half-expecting further collapse.

“I don’t recall ever dealing with a building this old,” Bley told a reporter.

But by 4:30 p.m. Thursday, buildings department engineers determined that 86 Bedford was not in danger of collapse and authorized the owner to stabilize and shore up the building. Nevertheless, the department issued three violations for working without a valid permit and unsafe construction practices.

Residents from three nearby buildings, the adjoining 82 Bedford and 56 and 58 Barrow St., which form a horseshoe around a common courtyard, were evacuated, and residents of 10 apartments were found emergency shelter, according to the Red Cross.

The building at 89 Bedford, across from Chumley’s, was evacuated with the aid of Sixth Precinct police and remained closed for a few hours.

Jen Schindler, a resident of 89 Bedford for 11 years, and her two children, Warren, 3, and Hazel, 1, were able to return around 6 p.m. Schindler said that Thursday night from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. Friday was a no-sleep night because workers at 86 Bedford were shoring up the building and were using a loud generator.

By Friday evening, all the streets were back open.

Margaret Streicher-Porres, owner of 86 Bedford and 84 Bedford, was cited by the Village Voice last year as one of the city’s 10 worst landlords, according to Lee Grodin, an aide to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The corporate owner is listed as Speakeasy 86 L.L.C.

In May 2006, the chimney at the top of the three-story 84 Bedford collapsed while being repaired, causing a cascade of bricks and debris to crash through to a third-floor apartment; a short time later, the collapse continued, raining debris down to the ground floor.

The collapse forced the temporary closing of 82 and 86 Bedford St. and Chumley’s shut down for a couple of days until the two buildings were reopened.

But almost a year later, the displaced tenants of 84 Bedford St. are still not able to return to their homes and have filed a lawsuit against the owner.

Early last month, Steve Schlopak, the owner of Chumley’s, said he believed the landlord’s efforts to close Chumley’s and remove the residents of two apartments above the bar during reconstruction of the facade was a ploy to close the building permanently and demolish it.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, also said he suspects the landlord “was trying to destroy and tear down the building for months.”

The building, however, is in the boundary of the Greenwich Village Historic District and is protected from demolition. Moreover, Chumley’s has a long-term lease for the premises. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, in February, approved a new 1920s-style facade for the building and insisted on a wooden rather than metal front door. The L.P.C. also urged the owner to try to do the work without disturbing Chumley’s or residents of the two apartments above the bar.

The buildings at 84 and 86 Bedford St. have been for sale since January with an asking price of $3.77 million in a listing that notes, “potential structural issues.”

Some attribute the origin of the phrase “eighty-sixed” — meaning “to throw out or eject” — to Chumley’s. When a raid occurred on the speakeasy, patrons were alerted by a cry of “86!” telling them to flee the building at 86 Bedford St.

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