A Yorkville mystery solved

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Pieces of a storied tavern’s past resurface in Vermont


  • Joseph Wagner Jr. serving at Wagner's Triboro Restaurant and Bar. Photo courtesy of Lillianna Baczeski

  • J.W. Ryans bar in St. Albans, Vermont, where significant parts of the former Yorkville watering hole Wagner’s Triboro Restaurant and Bar reside. Photo courtesy of Lillianna Baczeski

  • Joseph Wagner Jr. pouring at his Yorkville bar. Photo courtesy of Lillianna Baczeski

Lillianna Baczeski was on a mission to find a significant piece her family’s — and Yorkville’s — history.

The near entire interior of Wagner’s Triboro Restaurant and Bar, a Yorkville watering hole on Second Avenue near 93rd Street for nearly a half century owned and run for decades by Joseph Wagner Jr., had been sold to Columbia Pictures in 1980. Wagner would eventually start to wonder what had become of his bar. And so, eventually, would his granddaughter.

But Baczeski knew where to at least begin her search. From an old newspaper clipping kept by her grandfather, she learned that Columbia eventually sold the bar to a Vermont company, Great American Salvage. She was able to locate and then get in touch with the company’s owner, Steve Israel. Baczeski and Israel corresponded via email for nearly eight months as she scoured for clues to the bar’s whereabouts.

Although Israel had bought, refurbished and resold the bar more than 30 years ago, the bar’s craftsmanship was hard to forget, he said. “It’s amazing how, in many cases, the memory fades but certain things just really stand out,” he said. Wagner’s bar was among them.

Israel, touched by Baczeski’s hunt for the bar, also worked to find its whereabouts. “I loved the idea that she was tracking this down for her grandfather,” Israel said. “We did everything we could. We called some people, some of the old crew, to see if anyone remembered.”

Although he couldn’t nail down the bar’s definitive location, Israel recalled selling the bar locally and told Baczeski it was likely near Burlington, Vermont, not far from where Great American Salvage had been based in the 1980s. Still, despite being able to narrow her search, Baczeski was at a loss on where and how to begin — Vermont is a smaller state, but still has its share of taverns.

In early August, Baczeski and her partner Douglas Duhaime found themselves traveling through Vermont on their way to Montreal. They stopped at J.W. Ryan’s Pub in St. Albans, and, nursing beers, began to admire the pub’s wooden bar. “Neither of us had ever seen the bar in real life, so it was like the blind leading the blind,” Baczeski, 32, said, who only had old photographs and her grandfather’s description of a long bar that curved around at one end.

“I was fixated on the wooden architectural details, but couldn’t tell if they were the same as in the old photos,” she continued. “To me, it looked like it could be a million bars. I figured the best I would be able to do is photograph this bar and show the new photographs to my grandfather to see what he thought.”

Duhaime asked the bartender if the name Joseph Wagner seemed familiar. The bartender pointed to an interior window behind the couple. The pair turned to see two arched windows on which was stenciled “Wagner’s Triboro Restaurant.”

“I recognized it immediately,” Baczeski said. “When we saw the window, we both started shrieking because we were so excited and we knew we had found it. It was strangely emotional, like finding a long-lost relative.”

Baczeski and Duhaime weren’t the only people excited by the news. “I was elated, really elated,” Wagner, now 91 and living in New Jersey, said. “I never thought she would find it.”

Wagner’s Triboro Restaurant and Bar had been in the Wagner family for generations before it was shuttered in 1980, forced out to make way for a high-rise apartment building.

Wagner has only fond memories of the bar that his father opened in the early 1930s. After emigrating from Austria in the 1920s, the elder Wagner worked in Ruppert’s Brewery nearby before scrounging together enough money to open his own place.

Joseph Wagner Jr. grew up in the bar. He helped his dad from an early age, cleaning out spittoons when beer was only 10 cents a pint. He left Yorkville in 1943 for the Marine Corps. Naturally, once discharged he returned to Yorkville to help run the bar.

“I wanted to do it because I grew up there,” he said. “We had three generations of loyal customers, all Yorkville guys, all people I grew up with.”

The bar had two levels — the bar and restaurant were on the ground floor, and the basement hosted cabaret, although the band was only allowed to play Austrian music, or “oom pah pah” music, as Wagner called it. It was in the bar’s basement that Wagner met his future wife, Pauline. Although she had been attending the bar’s Saturday night dances for years, the two didn’t meet until Wagner returned from the Marines in 1946. He caught sight of her as she decorated the basement for a wedding.

His father eventually retired, leaving the bar in his son’s hands. Together, Joseph and Pauline ran the business. Even after the pair moved to New Jersey, they commuted to Yorkville every day, and Wagner remained loyal to the neighborhood where he grew up. The bar would make appearances in Miller beer commercials as well as in a scene in the 1979 drama “The Bell Jar.”

With the bar’s end days in sight, Wagner was approached by representatives from Columbia Pictures, who offered to buy everything all the furnishings — chairs, tables, fixtures and, of course, the bar. Wagner sold Columbia everything for $9,000.

He had no interest in going into business after that — it just wouldn’t have been the same, he said. Instead, he busied himself first with taking care of his aging parents, then babysitting his many grandchildren. In January 2014, Pauline passed away on her birthday. Baczeski suspects that her grandmother would have been thrilled to know they had found the bar to which she and her husband had been so dedicated. Baczeski plans to take her grandfather up to Vermont to see the bar.

The Yorkville bar, drenched in history, means a lot not just to the Wagner family, but also to Israel. “What was really wonderful was not only did she bring this back to her grandfather, but she also brought it back to me,” he said. “And I really appreciated that. With all the craziness going on in the world, these are the kinds of stories you want to be involved with, and I’m very grateful to be part of this story.”

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