Ithaca, N.Y. — With news that the building that holds the Chapter House may be “a total loss,” so might end the story of one of Ithaca’s longest running and beloved bars.
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The Chapter House has been a stalwart member of the Collegetown bar scene for over 80 years, making it the longest-established bar in the neighborhood. It began when a restaurant and “recreation parlor” called “Jim’s Place” began serving alcohol at 400 Stewart Avenue in 1934. Jim’s Place had been established earlier in the mid-1920s, serving dinners nightly for 50 cents, but the restaurant didn’t serve alcohol until it was legalized at the end of Prohibition.
Shortly after Jim’s Place began to serve alcohol, the bar and restaurant was nearly closed by the State Liquor Authority as neighborhood residents complained “that the establishment is an evil influence to student morals and a public nuisance“.
But after a lackluster turnout at the complaint hearings, the liquor authority ruled otherwise and let the restaurant stay open. Collegetown was initially a lower-class residential area with few retail offerings in the early 1900s, so the bar scene in those years was largely non-existent; a Cornell student looking to imbibe while out on the town would have made the trek to downtown locations such as Zinck’s (Hotel Brunswick and Lager Bar) on North Aurora Street. Most Collegetown bars that Cornellians are familiar with began operation in the 1960s and 1970s.
Over the years, Jim’s Place rolled with the changing times; in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a popular hangout for Cornell Greek Letter Organizations. Jim’s Place was damaged by a fire in 1950, but the damage was limited to a stove in the kitchen. The bar changed its name to the Chapter House in 1965.
When New York State raised the drinking age in 1982 (from 18 to 19) and 1985 (from 19 to 21), the Chapter House struggled to turn a profit and ended up shutting its doors for a couple of years during the 1980s.
The Chapter House experimented with other ventures, operating (briefly) as an ice cream parlor before becoming a bar once again in the late 1980s. After reopening, the bar produced its own beer, called Clement’s, but the microbrewery closed in the 1990s and the Chapter House opted to expand its beer selection from other makers. Given the popularity of craft brews these days, one might say Clement’s was ahead of its time.
But that’s not to say that moving toward a wider beer selection wasn’t successful. Among the drinking establishments serving Cornell students, The Chapter House built its reputation on having a deep and thorough beer selection, and has about 50 beers on tap at any given time.
The bar has been known in more recent years as a hangout for graduate students, a quieter, more relaxed member of the ever-evolving Cornell and Ithaca drinking repertoire.