Tavern lore: Barnaby’s building played huge role in New Paltz’s past

A Feb. 24, 1911 image of a costume party thrown by engineers on the New York Aqueduct in honor of George Washington’s birthday at the New Paltz Opera House, which is now Barnaby’s Steakhouse. (courtesy of the Haviland Heidgerd Historical Collection)

A Feb. 24, 1911 image of a costume party thrown by engineers on the New York Aqueduct in honor of George Washington’s birthday at the New Paltz Opera House, which is now Barnaby’s Steakhouse. (courtesy of the Haviland Heidgerd Historical Collection)

Of all the taverns the New Paltz Times has profiled so far, Barnaby’s Steakhouse holds perhaps the deepest and most important place in New Paltz history. By far the oldest of the bars, the big brick building on 16 North Chestnut Street once played a vital role in the social lives and entertainment of New Paltz’s citizens.

It had even been called — quite earnestly — New Paltz’s Carnegie Hall.


The Barnaby’s brand name too stretches back far into the past, since the tavern itself opened back in 1967.


A community project for all

Back in 1862, the local papers were busily writing anticipatory stories about the structure being erected at 16 North Chestnut Street. Built by a well-connected community group, the New Paltz Literary Association, the Village Hall was meant to be a gathering place for everyone.

Literary Association members gave money toward the construction. But they also rounded up donations from people in town by selling shares. They had a dream of building a mixed-use community center — with performance space upstairs for shows and concerts, room downstairs for a restaurant and apartments to house some families too.

“Our Village Hall is about finished,” wrote the New Paltz Times in 1864. “The basement is already occupied by families.”

Those renters lived — essentially — in what is now the kitchen at Barnaby’s Steakhouse. The rest of the downstairs seems to have housed David Judkin’s Restaurant. Judkin’s was a local entrepreneur, whose use of high-tech freezers and refrigerators was so new to people in town they even wrote about it in the newspaper.

“He will keep, in its season, all kinds of fruit, including oranges, lemons by the dozens, pine-apples, sarsaparilla, ginger-pop. Hot coffee at all hours,” New Paltz Times wrote in June 1864.

For us now in the year 2014, the use of the term “Village Hall” is a little misleading. It was a public meeting space used throughout its history as by churches and community groups. However, official government business wasn’t typically conducted there. It’d be better and more accurate to call it a “community center.”

According to Carol Johnson, with Elting Memorial Library’s Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection, government business of the 1860s was usually transacted at people’s houses, churches or even the bar.

Mixed-use meeting spaces — even if they included a government function — weren’t all that unusual back then. Boston’s famous Faneuil Hall — America’s “Cradle of Liberty” — had meeting rooms upstairs but shops and merchants downstairs.

Village Hall was the darling of our local newspapers’ events pages. Its theater presented vaudeville acts, piano recitals, concerts, minstrel shows, history lectures and important exhibits. Clubs and societies met there. New Paltz Episcopal Church used the Village Hall as a place to conduct church services before they built their own place. People met there for holidays. While they were still living, old Civil War veterans gathered there each year for a ceremony of honor.

It was a place where people could experience a slice of culture and fine arts — low-brow and classy.

Even just a few years after it was built, it was already considered indispensable. “We really do not know what our people would do without a village hall,” wrote the New Paltz Independent in 1869.

By 1871, William Kaiser had opened his barber shop and shoe repair store in Village Hall. Also in the 1870s, the still-very-new Republican Party held their meetings there.

All in all, it was a bustling center of the community.

Despite its occasional use for black minstrel shows, Village Hall and its patrons also didn’t shy away from learning about race issues. An advertisement from January 1878 promotes the appearance of Frances E. Harper — the famous African-American abolitionist. Her lecture on race was called “Colored Women of America, Helps and Hindrances.” Admission was $0.25.

To give some idea about how universal the Village Hall was back then, it safely held about 500 people. According to old news clippings, New Paltz’s total population wasn’t 500 until about 1880 — meaning literally everyone could gather there at once.


The Opera House

At the turn of the century, and after about 40 years of existence, the Village Hall already needed roof repair and some renovation. The New Paltz Literary Association lost a crucial battle in 1906, when Ulster County Savings Institution won in court and foreclosed on the building.

When the new owners came in, they’d rechristened the building the Opera House. But like “Village Hall” that’s also a sort of misnomer — since professional opera as one might see at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan couldn’t properly be staged there.

The Opera House continued on with the old mission of being a performance venue, and out of force of habit it seems that some continued calling it the Village Hall anyway. Here’s how the New Paltz Independent described it in 1907.

“Some kind of entertainment is going on at the Village Hall almost every evening,” the paper wrote. “There have been dancing and games of basket ball.”

Basketball had only been just invented in 1891 by coach James Naismith. So it would have been a fairly new and novel pastime in 1907. It used to be played with a soccer ball and bottomless wooden peach basket.

The Opera House continued to hold critically acclaimed concerts and events, about which both the local papers raved often and loudly. The old New Paltz Times, after which this paper is named, was the Democratic paper. New Paltz Independent was its Republican news rival. Both of them agreed that the Opera House was awesome.

In 1916, the upstairs theater space at 16 North Chestnut changed again when the owners added a small movie screen. But polio was a big fear back then. On June 28, 1916, the Independent ran a notice telling people not to come to the Opera House to see movies — by order of county health officials.

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