The Party Side of Historic Preservation

This month, legendary juke joints and old Poe haunts go head-to-head in an NCAA-style competition put on by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Sarah Baird talks with NTHP's editor about The Big Tap Tournament and the significance of saving these storied watering holes.

Club Moderne Anaconda Montana Historic Bars

The mere mention of the words “historic preservation” is bound to cause a certain type of image to dance in one’s head. Flowery, antiquated wallpaper from a president’s childhood home? Check. The crumbling façade of a fort from the Revolutionary War? Sure. Archeological knick-knacks? Of course.

But dive bars, breweries and taverns? Maybe not so much.

This year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) wants to change all that by spotlighting “preservation’s party side.” The Big Tap: Historic Bars Tournament is an NCAA bracket-style competition pitting America’s legendary juke joints against cocktail lounges in a bar brawl of the highest order.

Since 2014, NTHP has documented bars across the country that have a resounding importance to their communities, from the Genoa Bar (Nevada’s oldest watering hole) to The Horse You Came In On Saloon (a Baltimore classic “haunted” by Edgar Allan Poe). Sourced primarily from eager locals and social media, the bars are each given their own register entry explaining their unique cultural value, with the likes of Chicago jazz haven the Green Mill clinking (antique) glasses alongside saloons like The Museum Club in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Now in its second year, the Big Tap tournament is an annual toe-to-toe battle between legendary bars, as well as a cheeky way to draw attention to the stories of venues that are all-too-frequently overlooked. The documentation is equal parts playful and poignant, diving into the past while offering up information on how to visit—and enjoy—the bars as pieces of living history.

Below, Julia Rocchi, managing editor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, on tiki devotion, the historic brewery boom and the necessity of preserving these bars on a deeply personal level.

SB: What was the inspiration for cataloguing historic U.S. bars?

JR: The idea was inspired by a program called San Francisco Legacy Bars, where they were recording and mapping all of the historic bars in the area. One of our field officers shared it with us and said, “This is kind of fun! You should think about doing this.” It quickly snowballed into an ongoing series. Once we started researching all of the old and historic bars throughout the United States, it really hit home just how many there are.

What we love about covering historic bars is that they show preservation’s party side. A lot of the time, people think of preservation as velvet ropes and aloof elements. But old and historic bars are right there in our communities. They’re part of everyday life—people gather there, celebrate there—and it connects us in a personal way.

What’s the selection process?

When we select our bars, we’re looking for things like geographic diversity, age diversity, different building types and difference in the background of the bars.

For instance, we covered Julius’ Bar recently, in New York City, which was the site of the Sip In, an act of pre-Stonewall LGBT activism. We’ve covered The Chicken Box in Nantucket, which has an African-American history. We’re looking for a wide array of places—historic bars don’t come in one shape and size.

It’s definitely easier to source bars in cities, but last year’s [The Big Tap] winner, The Corner Club, is in Moscow, Idaho. I think people are equally enthusiastic about their own historic bars, no matter where they live. For instance, last year we covered two bars in Milwaukee, and this year we’re covering two more there. It’s been a city particularly excited about the tournament. They really connect with that part of their culture.

Tell me a little bit more about The Big Tap. What does it take to win?

Social media definitely helps. Historic Nashville promoted Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge a lot last year, and Mr. Henry’s [in D.C.] has been doing a push to its networks this year. People get into the spirit of the contest and know that it’s all about raising the visibility of these important places.

Ultimately, we’re showing how preservation weaves its way into where we choose to spend our time. The more these bars can help people realize that, the more it helps patrons recognize how important these places are to them, personally, too. They start to say, “I’d like this bar to be around for the next generation.”

What’s been one of your favorite stories so far?

Julius’ Bar stands out for me as a really important place. I got to talk to Tom Bernardin, who is a longtime patron of and advocate for the bar. He’s their “unofficial” historian. He’s really knowledgeable about the connection to LGBT activism there and does a really good job framing why this little hole-in-the-wall means so much to an entire community, even beyond Greenwich Village. It has significance in the broader continuum of history.

What are some of the subgenres of historic bar you’ve seen? Tiki, maybe?

This year, I think we only have one tiki bar [in The Big Tap]—the Bahi Hut in Sarasota, Florida—but last year, we had a few more. That’s definitely a fun, kitschy genre to play with. We’re also seeing a lot more breweries, which seem to gravitate towards really interesting, old spaces. There are some really fascinating [building] reuse stories out there.

What does the future hold for historic bar advocacy?

We’ve been covering bars for a couple of years, but we still have a humongous list because people are giving us new suggestions all the time. There’s certainly no dearth of material.

One trend that we’re noticing is how many cocktail places are on the list now, and how many establishments are hyping their unique cocktails. Where we started was with neighborhood dives— places where people wouldn’t be caught dead with a fancy cocktail. Now, we’re seeing drink culture start to permeate into these older, historic places. It’s a really neat mix of old and new.

Photo: Club Moderne, Anaconda, Montana. Flickr/drburtoni, courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation