Situated in the historic James Brown House, the Ear Inn is one of the oldest operating drinking establishments in New York City. The building was constructed around 1770 for James Brown, an African aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. He is said to be depicted in the famous Emmanuel Leutze painting of the victorious Delaware River crossing.
Brown had a lucrative career in the tobacco trade, affording him the fashionable townhouse just down the street from Washington's Richmond Hill Estate, which later housed John Adams and Aaron Burr.
At the time, the Hudson River shoreline was just five feet from Brown's front door. During his lifetime, the city became increasingly active and the exponentially growing shipping economy triggered changes in the neighborhood and Manhattan at large. The river was filled to the West Street and new piers were built to facilitate the constant shipping traffic, docking boats en route to everywhere from California and China.
When James Brown passed, the building took the first steps on its current path, satiating the thirsty in an unparalleled fashion. In the mid-1800s, Thomas Cooke sold home-brewed beer and crocks of corn whiskey to a constant wave of sailors. At the turn of the century, the brewery morphed into a restaurant and a dining room was constructed where the backyard and outhouse once stood. Prohibition did not deter the bar, which became a speakeasy during the mandated dry period.
The upstairs apartment has worn many hats over the years as a boarding house, smuggler’s den, brothel, and doctor’s office, but the ground floor has remained in the business of serving food and drink without pause.
After prohibition, the bar reopened its doors to the public. There was no name, for it didn’t need one. It’s reputation as a lady-free clubhouse for sailors to eat, drink, gamble, and be merry brought business from all over the world. Patrons nicknamed the untitled bar “The Green Door” for obvious reasons and the motto back then was “Known from coast to coast.”
The bar was finally given a name when current owners Martin Sheridan and Richard “Rip” Hayman took over in the late 70s. They called it The Ear Inn to avoid the Landmark Commission’s lengthy review of new signage, simply covering the round parts of the long-standing neon “BAR” sign, leaving it to read “EAR.” And so, a modern legend was born.
Today, the two and a half story, Federal style townhouse remains virtually untouched, adding a quaint sensibility to the otherwise industrial and modern neighborhood. There are a few friendly ghosts that have been known to make appearances, like “Mickey” who’s been patiently waiting for his clipper ship to come into the harbor for the past hundred years. The Ear Inn isn’t just a bar. It’s a place for creatives to combine forces, for friends to catch up, for families to dine, and for individuals to thrive. The owners and employees are the modern day caretakers of a vibrant and historical institution. Have a beer and a burger and soak up the uniquely contagious energy at The Ear.