Revisiting the remarkable history of Woodhaven’s Neir’s Tavern: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

Courtesy of Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society

On a recent Zoom call with Neir’s Tavern owner Loycent Gordon, Councilman Robert Holden announced that the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue in Woodhaven, where the tavern has sat for nearly 200 years, would be co-named Neir’s Tavern Way.

Neir’s Tavern opened in 1829 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 60,000 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 who 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.

After its restoration, Neir’s Tavern became 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. But there was trouble on the horizon.

Early last year, the building that the historic tavern occupies was sold. Friends and family gathered around owner Loycent Gordon as he made the announcement that Neir’s Tavern would be closing in a few days. The 191-year old business would be no more; it would fall short of celebrating 200 years.

What followed seemed like a miracle. A call-in to the mayor on a radio show, a gathering of politicians and business leaders, and before you knew it a deal had been struck and a lease had been signed, all but guaranteeing a 200th anniversary.

We wish we could say it’s been smooth sailing since then, for Neir’s Tavern or any other restaurant. In the midst of this pandemic, Neir’s loyal fan base has continued to support it, coming out in numbers for weekly Zoom calls, sitting outside in all weathers and getting lots of takeout food.

They keep coming out to make sure that in the future, when people see the Neir’s Tavern Way sign on the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue, they aren’t scratching their heads, looking around for yet another historic place that is no more.

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If you have any remembrances or old photographs of “Our Neighborhood: The Way It Was” that you would like to share with our readers, please write to the Old Timer, c/o Ridgewood Times, 38-15 Bell Blvd., Bayside, NY 11361, or send an email to [email protected] Any print photographs mailed to us will be carefully returned to you upon request.

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