Via The New York Times, written by Corey Kilgannon:
NEW HAVEN — For years, a shoddy shed of dilapidated wood has cluttered up the boatyard of the Fair Haven Marina, a hub for recreational boaters on this stretch of the Quinnipiac River, just east of Yale University.
Brought up from New York City nearly a century ago, it is an 1850s-era oyster barge that has had various incarnations — as a speakeasy, a restaurant called the Old Barge and, finally, as a dive bar before closing for good in 1987. It was then left to languish in the boatyard, too leaky even to use as a storage shed.
“Most people wanted me to tear it down, but I said, ‘That can’t happen,’ ” the marina’s owner, Lisa Fitch, said. “Everyone who grew up around here had a beer here.”
She drank there too, as a young adult, she said, and had eaten there as a child, when the barge was still a restaurant.
But for the yard’s manager, Brett Seriani, it was more of a headache than a local landmark, and he urged Ms. Fitch to bulldoze it.
“She kept saying, ‘No, it’s historical,’ ” Mr. Seriani said. “But come on, there’s historical and there’s hysterical.”
Mr. Seriani can smile now because the old barge is finally departing, and not in a Dumpster. Instead, it is being carefully dismantled to be taken by truck to the Brooklyn waterfront, where it will be rebuilt it to its original grandeur, and, if all goes well, will float in the East River off Lower Manhattan within a year.
That is the plan envisioned by the Pincus brothers, Alex and Miles, maritime preservationists and Manhattan restaurateurs who specialize in the restoration of old boats.
Alex Pincus said the barge could become a maritime museum or a dining establishment like Grand Banks, an oyster bar the brothers opened last summer on a historic schooner that they restored and docked on the Hudson River at Pier 25 in Manhattan.
Mr. Pincus said he had read a newspaper article last summer that mentioned Ms. Fitch’s desire to sell the marina. It also said she was hoping to find a taker for what was perhaps the last of the many oyster barges that docked as floating markets along the East River, near the Brooklyn Bridge, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“We saw that it was the only one left, and potentially available, and it was something we had to do,” he said.
Numerous attempts over the years to move and preserve the barge had sputtered. But the brothers’ background and vision impressed Ms. Fitch, she said, so she sold it to them for $1.
A local, amateur historian, Robert S. Greenberg, said that the vessel was probably built in the mid-1800s and that its structure seemed to match one of the barges in historic photographs he had found.
Oystermen during that era would steer their small sailboats up to the rear of the barges and offload their catch, which barge operators would sell wholesale or serve fresh on the piers to lines of customers, he said.
“The barges were like processing plants,” Mr. Greenberg said. “The oysters came in one end and went out the other very quickly.”
The barges sprung up when New York City was still the oyster capital of the world and lower New York Harbor had about 350 square miles of oyster beds, where hundreds of millions of bivalves were harvested every year.
Around 1920, as the oyster industry in New York began to decline, Mr. Greenberg said, the barge was bought by Ernest Ball, who owned the Fair Haven marina property at the time. It was towed to Fair Haven, which still had a thriving oyster industry along the Quinnipiac River.
The barge was floated onto the property via a short canal, which was then filled in. During the 1930s, it was a speakeasy.
PhotoOyster barges moored on the Hudson River in 1912, before the industry in New York City began to decline, around 1920. Credit The Oysterman and Fisherman
“The reason it survived is because it got landlocked,” Mr. Greenberg said, saving it from storms and a rotting hull.
It still bears “Old Barge” restaurant signs — “Choice beer, wines and liquors, hot meals” — painted decades ago but preserved under shingle siding for decades. According to local lore, the second floor may have featured a bathtub and a brothel for the oystermen.
Mr. Greenberg showed buckets full of bottles and pottery and china shards that he excavated from a section of the barge’s hold.
“It had all these lives,” Mr. Greenberg. “And now it’s going home to the East River.”
Alex Pincus said the barge, which is 17 feet wide and 70 feet long, would be reconstructed by a shipwright and a team of boat builders at the Atlantic Basin in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Mr. Pincus said they hoped to use as much of the barge’s original materials as possible, especially the larger support timbers and beams. But, he added, much of the wood and cladding are in poor shape and will have to serve as models for new versions.
The barge will be rebuilt along the identical structural lines, including the tapered shape that allowed it to rock without its roof crashing into adjacent floating barges and the bowed floor that allowed proper drainage.
The brothers’ plan is to pursue a docking location in a “historically appropriate” spot near where the original oyster barges once floated on the East River, Mr. Pincus said.
Of the barge, he said, “It’s harder to relate to, in a marina in Connecticut, but if you bring it back to New York, it just sort of unleashes the potential.”
This made sense to Mr. Seriani, the yard manager, who laughed when asked if he patronized the barge when it was a dive bar.
“I spent a week there one afternoon,” he said, dragging on a cigarette. “It was a real bucket of blood. They had to put a cage around the back deck because of the fights — people would get thrown off the deck into the water.”
The floor was uneven, he remembered, and “you knew you were too drunk to drive when it seemed level to you.”
Ms. Fitch said she had been willingly paying an extra $6,000 each year in property taxes to keep the structure on the property because, “I knew it would all fall into place somehow.”