The Room Where It Really Happened: The Fraunces Tavern Museum

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In it, she continues her series of museum reviews, all of which you can see here

The Fraunces Tavern Museum is located in lower Manhattan, New York. Conveniently, given the difficulty of driving in the area, it is less than five minutes’ walk from numerous subway stops, including Staten Island Ferry (the 1 line), Wall St. (2 and 3), Bowling Green (4 and 5), Whitehall St. (R and W), and Broad St. (J and Z). Adult admission is $7, but holders of a New York City library card are entitled to two free tickets per month. A visit can be expected to take about one hour. At 3 p.m. on a Monday, I had most of the galleries to myself, but 25,000 patrons are said to pass through annually. The museum is open weekdays from noon to 5 p.m. and weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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The Fraunces Tavern Museum

The land on which the Fraunces Tavern Museum now sits was purchased by a Dutch immigrant in 1686. His French Huguenot son-in-law constructed the three-story building of brick, tile, and lead between 1719 and 1722. Initially intended as a family home, it was also used as a dance studio and ballroom, mercantile and commercial space, and rental property. In 1762, it was acquired by the immigrant Samuel Fraunces (c. 1722-1795). Observing that lower Manhattan, by then densely settled, lacked a tavern, the entrepreneurial Fraunces opened the Queen’s Head (named for Queen Charlotte, wife of Great Britain’s George III), later that year. As its reputation spread, customers began referring to it as the Fraunces Tavern.

As in early modern Europe, taverns in colonial America offered entertainment, sociability, and hospitality for (mostly) men with time on their hands. Gradually, these institutions evolved into centers of community formation and life, sites for civic and political discussion, and even action. The Frances Tavern’s second floor was the setting of numerous significant episodes in early American history. It was there that the New York Chamber of Commerce was founded, the Sons of Liberty gathered, Loyalists to Great Britain were tried, and Alexander Hamilton met Aaron Burr a week before their fateful duel. Fraunces hosted future military hero and president George Washington for the first time in 1776, mere months before British troops occupied New York at the outset of the Revolutionary War. At the close of the conflict on December 4, 1783, Washington invited his officers to a farewell dinner in the so-called Long Room. Today, the room is set up with period furnishings, decorations, and artifacts to show how it might have appeared on this occasion. The bare wooden floor and table, humble pewter plates, mismatched goblets, dented metal tableware, and communal punch tureen attest to the simplicity of public space in the eighteenth century.

Across the hall is the Clinton Room, which takes its name from Revolutionary War general, New York governor, and U.S. vice president George Clinton (1739-1812). Clinton, a frequent patron of the Fraunces Tavern, hosted Washington and others at a dinner celebrating the departure of the British from New York City on November 25, 1783. Unlike the humble public Long Room, the luxurious Clinton Room functioned as a private dining space for elite eighteenth-century guests. The table, resting on an imported rug, is set with Chinese porcelain and silverware with inlaid mother-of-pearl. The rare wallpaper was printed by French woodblock artists in the early nineteenth century and depicts imaginative scenes from the Revolutionary War.

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The Clinton Room

The second floor of the Fraunces Tavern Museum also boasts a screening room where a short film presents the history of the building through the present day. During the Articles of Confederation era (1781-1789), when New York City served as the national capital, it housed the Departments of War, Foreign Affairs, and the Treasury. In the nineteenth century, as the surrounding population exploded, it operated as a boardinghouse for newly arrived immigrants and their families. In 1904, the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York (SRNY), a historical preservation society whose members boast descent from veterans of the War of Independence, acquired and renovated the building. It was opened to the public as a museum and restaurant three years later on the anniversary of Washington’s farewell dinner. Today a cozy, traditional pub occupies the first floor. Given its proximity to Wall Street, it is a popular spot for business lunches. The menu offers chicken pot pie, lamb stew, and other hearty English fare originally cooked by Fraunces. Corporate crowds also head here for happy hour thanks to the well-curated beer and whiskey menus.

SRNY also collected and donated artifacts of early American history to fill the five galleries on the third floor of the building. These include (reproductions of) eighteenth-century British, French, and U.S. flags; and the personal possessions and commemorative paraphernalia associated with heroes and martyrs of Revolutionary War espionage. Of particular interest is the diary of spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge (1754-1835), author of the only known account of Washington’s 1783 dinner party.

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Diary of Benjamin Tallmadge

Although the Fraunces Tavern Museum is less an exploration of early modern drinking culture than a repository of American heritage, history enthusiasts will surely enjoy the opportunity to visit such a significant and lovingly preserved relic of the national past.