A full-size shuffleboard, a basement bowling alley, card tables, art-deco etched-glass mirrors and an odor of cigar-burnished woodwork give the United Republican Club of the 25th Ward the look and feel of a tavern from yesteryear. So it’s no surprise that the reg’lars at the Kensington club turned up a 20-year-old can of Ortlieb’s.
“For a long time, it was the only beer you could drink here,” said Fran Evans, a former Frankford committeeman who, though he now lives across the river in Pennsauken, still hangs out at the club. “Albert B. Ortlieb was our treasurer, and the beer was delivered straight from the brewery.”
That brewery, closed in the early ’80s, has been reborn as Poor Henry’s brewpub (829 N. American St., Northern Liberties), operated by a descendant of Ortlieb’s founder. The rebirth had me thirsting for a good ol’ can of Joe’s Beer, and I offered a free dinner to anyone who could dig one up. Fran found one and brought it over to the club.
It was a vintage collector’s Bicentennial can from 1976 with a drawing of Independence Hall on the side and a real flip-top pull tab on the lid.
Frankly, it looked pretty nasty. So, instead of sharing the beer, Fran and his buddies shared stories about their club, founded in 1856.
“I used to come here after halfball games when I was younger,” Evans said. “They told me if I behaved like a gentleman and got to know the guys, I could join. It’s a unique camaraderie.”
The place darn near burned to the ground a few years ago, and the members have spent hundreds of volunteer hours to restore everything from the stained glass to the barstools. Here’s a Joe Sixpack toast, guys: You deserve a lot of credit for saving a historic building that could have easily disintegrated into ashes.
Their pride is a bronze niche sculpture of an oldtime Republican boss named Thomas Powers. If you look closely, you’ll see the sculptor’s signature: Alexander Calder, the same guy who did Billy Penn on City Hall.
The club commissioned the artwork in 1900 for $755 and gave it to Thomas Powers Elementary School. When the school closed a few years ago, the club salvaged the bust and placed it above the fireplace, where today it sternly watches the members hoist mugs of brew. They aren’t drinking Ortlieb’s any longer, but the beer still tastes fine at the United Republican Club of the 25th Ward.
TOKE OR CHOKE?
The distinctive smell of smoke at the club reminded me why many bar-owners have been unable to accommodate the burgeoning premium cigar trend. They’d like to welcome their stogie-stoking customers, but they don’t want to turn off their nonsmoking regulars.
Joe Sixpack enjoys a robusto now and then, so (unlike most matters of taste) I may not be entirely objective on this issue. But what makes cigarette smoke any less repugnant than that of a cigar? If anything, a $5 all-natural Honduran wrapped in Connecticut shade leaf and hand-rolled by peasant artisans produces a far more pleasing aroma than the noxious fumes emitted by 25-cent death sticks pumped out by the job-stealing automated machinery of multinational cartels.
Smoke-free is fine with me – as long as it’s all smoke. Taverns that permit cigarettes but not cigars are discriminating against minority smoke.
Cough if you agree!