Fraunces Tavern Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 71 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The 1883 commemorative china for the Sons of the Revolution’s Turtle Soup Feast marking the 100th anniversary of Washington’s farewell to his officers.  Cute turtle.Fraunces Tavern Museum

Fraunces Tavern Museum, ManhattanFraunces Tavern started out as a private home in 1719, then opened for business as a drinking establishment in the 1760s. It served as the venue for two important events:

  • The governor of New York, George Clinton, held a public dinner there to celebrate the withdrawal of the  British from New York (and the rest of the colonies), an event known as Evacuation Day.  Evacuation Day (25 November) used to be a major New York holiday, though it’s mostly forgotten now, except by the Sons of the Revolution (about whom more anon).
  • After the war, General Washington gathered some of his staff in one of the private dining rooms to retire and say farewell to them.  This was before the U.S. was the U.S., before the Constitution and before the country decided it needed a president (and what a fine idea that has turned out to be), and so before Washington knew he’d have another major role to play for his country.

If you’ve read any of my other historic place reviews, you can guess my questions:  when was Hamilton there?  And secondarily, what did he have to drink?

As it turns out, the Tavern lacks evidence of Hamilton’s presence.  Historians assume he probably attended Washington’s farewell dinner.  But we don’t have it recorded in a diary or memoir of the event.  I’ll still give this place a “Hamilton.”

I like to think that as a Caribbean Islander Hamilton favored the dark-n-stormy, but that is pure speculation.  I’m reasonably certain they had ginger beer in his time, and some smart person must’ve thought to mix it with rum.  Hey, I’ll start a rumor:  Hamilton invented the dark-n-stormy.  If you read it on a blog, it must be so!

Fraunces Tavern remains a watering hole and restaurant to this day, the downstairs serving updated pub food and drink.  The upstairs meeting rooms, along with a few spaces incorporated from surrounding buildings, serve as the museum, memorializing the tavern’s contributions to history.

Sons of the Revolution

Fraunces Tavern Museum
Washington’s Tooth

One room of the museum serves as a shrine to the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, and features important historic relics.  Said relics include (rather macabrely) a tooth from Washington’s dentures, and a lock of his hair.  Secular saint that he was, I suppose it’s logical his physical remains should be venerated.

Fraunces Tavern Museum, New YorkThe Sons of the Revolution are responsible for the survival of Fraunces Tavern.  When the building was threatened with destruction, they raised the money to save and preserve it.  I love that. Two organizations of Colonial Dames take care of ritzy mansions (like Van Cortlandt House) and upscale hotels (Mt. Vernon Hotel).  The Sons look after a tavern.  It’s fitting, no?

Other Things I Saw

Valuable Exhibit at Fraunces Tavern Museum
Valuable, with Martha’s Shoe

Other featured exhibits include portraits of Washington, and a small show called simply “Valuable” that shows off some of the tavern’s treasures, including one of Martha Washington’s shoes.  Just one.  And Nathan Hale’s last letter, and a fairly important 19th century depiction of the signing of the Constitution by Thomas Rossiter, in which you can play a Waldo-like game of “Where’s Hamilton?”  I’m not 100% sure, no one in this picture looks like Lin-Manuel Miranda to me…

Thomas Rossiter, Signing of the Constitution, Fraunces Tavern Museum
Where’s the Ham?

In addition, the Tavern boasts a roomful of bombastic, heroic paintings of the Revolution by a guy named John Dunsmore.  Dunsmore lived from 1856 to 1945, so he wasn’t there in person.  Today his paintings are interesting as artifacts of their time, though they’re not great art.

And then there’s two period rooms, the Long Room, where Washington’s party happened, and the Clinton Room.  The latter has very fetching wallpaper depicting revolutionary events against totally inappropriate American backgrounds.  Fun, if ahistorical.  They ask visitors not to photograph the Long Room, so I didn’t.  But here’s that wallpaper, and a nice historical interior.

Fraunces Tavern Museum
Clinton Room

You’re a Grand Old Flag

Fraunces Tavern Museum
Vexillologists Unite!

Finally, a rather beautiful, brick-walled, high-ceilinged room  displays a collection of revolutionary era flags, mostly modern copies. Vexillologists (look it up!) may find reproductions of early flags interesting, but I wasn’t so into them.

 Should You Visit?

Fraunces Tavern’s museum tells a variety of stories.  It balances well between taverns and their general role in 18th century society, and the specific historic role this one played.  And more: I haven’t even talked about the eponymous Fraunces, but he was a really interesting guy.  It’s not the most complex story, and some of the exhibits are only modestly interesting. But it’s a rare (in this city) tangible link to the era when this whole great enterprise (both New York and the United States) began.

As with the Mount Vernon Hotel, I think it’s valuable that we’ve got a couple of historic tavern/meeting/public places to complement the city’s retinue of historic houses. 

I haven’t eaten at Fraunces Tavern, but I can vouch for it for drinks.  Visitors from Britain will rightly scoff; a 250-year-old tavern in London or York 1.0 is still a new kid on the block.  But for the U.S. it’s impressive — the oldest bar in Boston still in its original building (Charlestown’s Warren Tavern) dates to 1780. Stroll through the displays at Fraunces Tavern’s museum, then retire downstairs for a Hamiltonian dark-n-stormy and some tapas, and contemplate history and the ways we make and remember it.

Fraunces Tavern Museum
History Upstairs, Drinking Downstairs

For Reference:

Address 54 Pearl Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $7
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