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When Hurley's Was Hopping

By Curt GathjeJan 10 2017

Some aged buildings in Manhattan manage to survive for no apparent reason other than luck, and among them is 1240 Sixth Avenue, the unassuming, four-story brick structure with a colorful history, where Magnolia Bakery now resides. But it took quite a bit of moxie for this NYC gem to stand its ground during the construction of Rockefeller Center in the 1930s.

Built around 1870, the townhouse fit right into its gritty neighborhood, with a nondescript barroom on street level and rooms to let on the floors above. It lay on the northeast corner of 49th Street and Sixth Avenue, then a blue-collar boulevard compared to white-glove Fifth Avenue, one block away. 1240 was constructed about the same time as the Sixth Avenue elevated train, which sent the area further into decline. The El cast dark shadows on the sidewalks, was so noisy it made buildings shake, and spewed soot and cinders on pedestrians.

In 1892, three Irishmen—Daniel and Connie Hurley and Patrick Daly—took a long-term lease on the building and named the ground-floor saloon Hurley Brothers and Daly, which quickly became known as just plain Hurley’s. The bar flourished until the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, but easily adapted to this monumental change by morphing into a speakeasy, with the saloon housed in the rear of the space (accessed by an unmarked door on 49th Street) and a florist shop established in its front window.

In 1928, John D. Rockefeller Jr. began assembling a large parcel of land in the neighborhood for the new Metropolitan Opera House, but after the stock market crashed, he changed his plans dramatically to create Rockefeller Center, aka "the city within the city." His agents purchased 1240 quickly enough, but then encountered a major stumbling block: Hurley’s owners, citing their long-term lease, refused to vacate. Rockefeller asked the Hurleys to make him an offer, and their response was $250 million—the same price that the entire complex was said to cost. Rockefeller declined. And so the RCA building (now known as 30 Rock) was constructed around 1240.

Sixth Avenue’s fortunes changed for the better after the El was demolished in 1939, and Hurley’s prospered too, with a new Rock Center–oriented following: Associated Press reporters and NBC staffers, from stars to stagehands, who nicknamed it Studio 1H. NBC talk show hosts, such as Jack Paar and Steve Allen, began to mention it on the air.

By the ’60s, the saloon became a clubhouse for local publishing and media types, drawn by its handy location and raffish charm. Johnny Carson was then NBC’s star late-night host, and he made Hurley’s a running gag in his monologues—it was the bar where Ed McMahon could be found drowning his sorrows. Random movers and shakers showed up, everyone from Howard Hughes and Henry Kissinger to John Belushi and Jack Kerouac.

Those glory days came to an end, however, when Hurley’s lease finally expired in 1975. The bar closed, and 1240 was renovated, its red brick walls painted pearl gray to harmonize with the towers around it. The ground-floor space was revamped into an imitation 19th-century bar/restaurant, unoriginally called ... Hurley’s. David Letterman made several on-air visits there in the ’90s, but ultimately the new incarnation shuttered in 1999. It later reopened as Citarella Restaurant, a fine dining spin-off of the respected fish store. Today, it draws a line for Magnolia's famous cupcakes—quite a change from its sooty, sudsy origins.

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