915 Third Avenue

Although it does not scrape for the sky like its neighbors, the unassuming two-story building located at 915 Third Avenue (at 55th Street) holds over 120 years of memories, and a skeleton key to the avenue's past.

The building at 915 Third Avenue was built in a simplified Italianate style in the 1860s. It was originally four stories: three floors of railroaded apartments over a ground-floor saloon. The building was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Michael and Ellen Breslin in 1884. In 1904, the saloon was leased to Patrick Joseph Clarke, an Irishman hailing from County Leitrim.

As the city expanded uptown, the neighborhood became packed with breweries and slaughterhouses whose day laborers clamored for the drink at night. In those naughty oughties, Third Avenue was only just learning to shop, but drinking was well under its belt: some of its blocks had as many as eight bars on each side of the street! Under Clarke's management, the saloon at 915 Third Avenue boomed with business from local politicians, newspaper reporters, and others who were frequently seen out and about town. Despite his success, Clarke never bought the building.

The pub became known as P.J. Clarke's, and the building was bought in 1943 by Daniel and Matilda Lavezzo, who owned a nearby antique shop. In 1945, the notoriety of P.J. Clarke's was immortalized in film when it was used for the many barroom scenes of The Lost Weekend. Clarke's death in 1948 left his heirs fighting over the pub's operation, and so within a year they sold their interests to the Lavezzo family. Under the management of Danny Lavezzo, Jr. and Charles Clarke, P.J. Clarke's prospered and continued to win the faith of customers like Frank Sinatra and Richard Harris.

In 1967, Tishman Realty & Construction Company came knocking, seeking to buy up the whole block for a high-rise office building. Lavezzo refused to give in.

Most stories of holdout tenants would end right here, and the next knock at the door would be the wrecking ball. However, Danny Lavezzo had an ace in the hole: he had bought a midblock property, which he refused to give up unless P.J. Clarke's stayed. After some hard bargaining, Lavezzo sold both buildings to Mr. Tishman for $1.5 million (today, approximately $8.5 million) and a ninety-nine year lease for P.J. Clarke's (set for renewal in 2067).

Today, as it was a century ago, P.J. Clarke's is a bustling pub. Its current owners, Timothy Hutton and Phil Scotti, restored P.J. Clarke's while remaining true to its nineteenth-century grandeur and leaving its relics in place. The food -- red meat and raw bar especially -- receives consistently excellent raves and reviews, although today's Page Sixers seem to prefer wheat grass and free-range chicken to solidly good pub grub.

P.J. Clarke's is an exercise in contrast: while discreetly drawing attention to itself as a low-lying oasis in a high-rise desert, it also stands unafraid before the 45-story Goliath looming behind it.

The next time you're in the neighborhood, stop in and raise your glass to 2068.


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