Historic tavern in Woodhaven celebrates 190 years of friendship and service: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

Photo courtesy of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society

On Sunday, Oct. 5, Neir’s Tavern in Woodhaven will celebrate its 190th birthday with a street celebration outside the building it has occupied since 1829.

Located at 78th Street and 88th Avenue, Neir’s Tavern opened as The Blue Pump Room, owned by Cadwallader R. Colden whose grandfather was the lieutenant governor of the British Province of New York and whose cousin was the mayor of New York City.

Colden, the black sheep of this well-known and distinguished family, was also the manager of the historic Union Course Race Track, which sat directly across the street from The Blue Pump Room.

The Union Course was a large race track, sitting between 78th and 85th Streets, from Jamaica Avenue to Atlantic. Races between horses representing the North and the South were popular events with one race, between American Eclipse and Henry attracting over 60 thousand spectators.

The Long Island Rail Road opened a special station on Atlantic Avenue for the race track (called the Union Course stop) and several hotels sprang up to handle the many visitors to the track. The track was so well-known that this entire section of Woodhaven became known as Union Course.

In 1835, the tavern was sold and renamed “The Old Abbey” which, as the track began its long, slow decline, earned a reputation as a “notorious rumseller” that catered to the rougher crowds that now came to the races.

In the 1850s, banker and politician Nathan Graves purchased The Old Abbey, and he turned its reputation around as the race track went through its final stages before finally closing just after the Civil War. The track sat dormant for nearly two decades before the land was sold and divided up into lots where many of today’s Woodhaven homes would be built.

Just before the turn of the century, the tavern was purchased by Louis Neir who added a bowling alley and a ballroom and renamed it “Neir’s Social Hall”. The Neir family also owned a hotel, just one block south of the tavern (at the corner of 78th Street and 87th Road), in a building that still stands to this day.
Over the years, many of the old-timers that frequented Neir’s told tales of stage and screen legend Mae West performing in the ballroom.

While some people cast doubt on these tales, those who were there back in the day swore it was true, and she did live just a few blocks away (on 88th Street off of 89th Avenue).

The establishment was kept by the Neir family into the late 1960s when it was sold again and became known as “The Union Course Tavern.” Its reputation as an old-time, classic bar with a rich history attracted the attention of film scouts and resulted in some of the more memorable scenes from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci being filmed inside in 1989.

It remained under that name until it was sold again in 2009. The interior underwent a detailed and beautiful restoration and it was renamed, once again, as Neir’s Tavern.

Since its restoration, Neir’s Tavern has become a vibrant showcase for musical and spoken word talent as well as a site of community gatherings, fundraisers and coat/toy drives at the holidays.

The Neir’s establishment has seen it all in Woodhaven. From its earliest days (when it was named Woodville), through the early days of racing, through the Civil War (when a camp was set up directly across the street), through the arrival of the railroad, the disappearance of the farms and the arrival of housing.

The neighborhood has changed a great deal in the last 190 years. Time travelers from 1829 would find a very different community than the one they were used to. The one familiar face they might find is Neir’s Tavern.

Drop by on the afternoon of Oct. 5 to celebrate the 190th birthday of this historic Woodhaven institution. For details, email woodhavenhistory[@]gmail.com.