Photo courtesy of Kevin O'Neill

Editor’s note: The following is an opinion column written by Jeff Stein, editor of the Ithaca Voice.


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Why I Shop Downtown

Ithaca, N.Y. — Sometime during my sophomore year at Cornell, my best friend turned 21. I was still 20.

No matter. Full of youthful, irrational confidence, I marched with him through Collegetown — past CTB, down the sloping Dryden Road, and across Stewart Avenue — plotting how I would pass for a 25-year-old Cornell graduate student. I was determined, you see, to get into The Chapter House.

Five minutes later, I was back in my dorm room. It would be another year — and my 21st birthday — before The Chapter House opened its doors to me.

Photo courtesy of Kevin O’Neill
Photo courtesy of Kevin O’Neill

It was well worth the wait. For about three years now, The Chapter House has been my sanctuary and social club, my concert hall and dance floor, my watering hole, and — of course — my infinite popcorn dispensary. And now that it may very well be gone for good, I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go to mourn.

Around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, a major fire tore through two buildings on Stewart Avenue — including one that housed The Chapter House. It’s not yet clear if the structures or the iconic pub can be saved, but it’s not promising.

Photo courtesy of Mayor Myrick

I imagine the ensuing outpouring of grief over The Chapter House on social media today is a little bewildering to those who had never grown attached to the place. I remember feeling that way when the bar The Palms closed in 2012, prompting over-the-top lamentations and — as memorably captured at the time by Mike Linhorst — even a marriage proposal.

Now, at least in terms of The Chapter House, I can say that I understand the emotion. The Chapter House wasn’t just the place I got a good drink. In its commitment to alternative music and alternative beer, in the mugs that dangled from its ceiling and the wood tables that lined its floors, The Chapter House cultivated a distinct sensibility that set it apart.

That it is even referred to at all as a “Collegetown bar” reflects, I think, a weakness of language. The term conjures up cheap beer and grating pop music, bathroom hurlers and bratty students.

The Chapter House was different. Over the years, it became first and foremost a pub for graduate students. But it was also capacious enough to bring together undergraduates and locals. Arguments about Nietzsche were given the backdrop of reggae music. It was, I’d argue, the only Collegetown bar where you could reasonably expect to be smarter going out than when you had gone in. And it never served Keystone.

Photo courtesy of Matt Marsh
Photo courtesy of the Creative Commons/Flickr

Of course, I won’t really miss The Chapter House for something remotely so abstract.

Instead, it’s my own distinct memories that create the bond with the place: Rooting on my NY Rangers chase after Stanley Cup glory. My first Gunpoets show. Trivia. The World Cup. Getting a demonstration from my dad about how a Real Man plays pinball. Paying the bouncer after foolishly betting that the Rangers would attain said Stanley Cup glory. The Nitro Milk Hotel Stout.

My favorite ornament at The Chapter House is a photo that was mounted on the right side of the middle room, about three tables down, adjacent to a print out of the fitting Chronicle of Higher Education article, “History With a Beer Chaser.”

The photo was of four smiling friends, posing together at The Chapter House. Within that photo, somehow, was another photo of the smiling friends posing with the same photo they held in the foreground. There was a third photo of them within, creating the kind of repeating pattern you get when you put two mirrors across from each other.

I never figured out how they made that photo. But as I think about the burnt-out Chapter House Tuesday morning, its beer taps caked in smoke, I like to think that the photo survived — and that the four friends are still smiling in it, again and again, into infinity.

Ithaca Voice coverage of Chapter House fire

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.