Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Password-protected: Speakeasy slated to open at Brooklyn Arts Center

To enter Original Sin at Brooklyn Arts Center, patrons will go down a stairwell from the courtyard and enter through a door, outfitted with a small, eye-level mini door, like the speakeasies of yore, complete with password to enter. (Photo by Diana Rose Photography)

WILMINGTON — A space below the 135-year-old church on N. Fourth Street that anchors the Brooklyn Arts District has become popular as a film set in recent years, as seen in shows like “Sleepy Hollow.” By next year, it will be restored into an underground bar.

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“We still get calls from Screen Gems for productions,” said Jay Tatum, who purchased the Brooklyn Arts Center in 2018 with his wife, Tara.

Primarily an events venue for weddings, concerts, arts markets and other specialized happenings, BAC is booked almost every weekend annually. Yet, Tatum always imagined the center would add on a public space that could serve patrons more frequently. 

Original Sin will be a speakeasy located in the soon-to-be renovated basement, accessible only through the BAC courtyard via a stairwell leading downstairs. Tatum considered building a door from inside to enter but thought the cost could be put to better use elsewhere.

“Instead of building a spiral staircase, I would rather take $50,000 to go into the actual bar,” he said. “And I think it’s cool for people to enter through the courtyard.”

The entry will be outfitted with a small, eye-level mini door, like the speakeasies of yore, complete with password to enter.

“It will be very app-driven,” Tatum said, wherein folks can make a reservation to come in if they don’t want to take chances of it being full.

Original Sin will be roughly 1,200-square-feet, enough to seat maybe 30 patrons at a time — though capacity will be determined fully through county permitting. The bar will not operate when BAC is rented out.

“But right now — in July for example, when we slow down — we can be a seven-day-a-week cocktail bar,” Tatum said. “I feel like Brooklyn’s a place for the people and I want the public to be able to see this place all the time, not just at a wedding or Christmas party.”

Behind the church proper is the adjoining Annex, a three-story addition built in 1910 that hosts more intimate affairs on the top two floors. Below is where the basement bar will be.

“Back in the old days, there actually used to be a tunnel that ran from the basement underneath the wooden floor that would have been in the church building,” Tatum said, “a corridor to distribute coal to heat the space.”

Brick archways in the basement underneath BAC’s Annex will be part of the design of the new speakeasy, coming in 2024. (Photo by Diana Rose Photography)

When Brooklyn Arts Center was renovated by Dave Nathans in 2010, he filled in the tunnel with concrete, but a small portion still exists in the Annex. Today, it acts as a storage space for original materials from the church and the Annex’s renovations — the latter of which took place in 2015.

Original slate tiles from the 1800s that made up the BAC roof are stowed away in the basement, along with church pews, tables and old doors. Stained glass and tongue-and-groove wood reclaimed from the building are piled high. Tatum plans to utilize the architectural salvage in the speakeasy’s renovation. 

“We can almost get away with the entire build of that space down there just by using the reclaimed wood,” he said.

The basement has 8-foot brick columns and archways holding up the floor system, so there will not be any ducking needed to enter the den.

“When Dave turned the Brooklyn Arts Center into what it became, he originally wanted to put some type of bar down there,” Tatum said.

But the project’s undertaking was a large one and steam declined; however, Tatum has hired Nathans’ firm, Urban Building Corp., to follow through on the vision.

First things first: rerouting ductwork. 

“That’s the big hurdle,” Tatum said, indicating the project is in the early stages of the planning phase. His goal is to have Original Sin open by early 2024.

Tatum also hired Rob Romero of Romero Architecture to draw out the plans. Jeff Bryant of Design Perfection — who often does weddings at BAC — is helping with the visual aesthetics.

An original wooden beam from the church, circa 1888, will make up the bar back. (Photo by Diana Rose Photography)

“His style is modern, but he’s aware of what I want to do: bring in the history,” Tatum said. “I love thinking about the fact there has been a lot of other people underneath this place long before me — through World Wars, The Depression, before the internet.”

Former wooden beams once inside the church will become the bar back. The slate roof tiles are planned to become the bar top. 

“The goal is to make something historical and modern, very boutique,” Tatum said. 

Original Sin will have a craft-cocktail program devised by Luke Carnevale, who does signature drinks for BAC’s wedding clientele. Carnevale also helped curate the menu for the Bell Tower Bar located in BAC’s balcony. 

It’s utilized during weddings but also open for Bell Tower Bourbon Club members. Stocked with 120 high-end whiskeys and bourbons, Tatum said it primarily serves original classics like Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. 

The bourbon club’s popularity — which has around 85 members — was a good indicator that Original Sin would take off, Tatum added. The club started with 50 people a few years ago but ended up with a wait list, compelling Tatum to increase membership. 

They meet quarterly at BAC over food and bourbon, with reps coming from Old Forrester or Sazerec Corporation to discuss new sippers. Recently, Tatum started opening up the Bell Tower to its members and guests certain days and times of the week.

“And we were selling those nights out,” he said. “There’s something cool about drinking whiskey in the old church.”

Expanding into a basement bar for the public was the next logical step.

Original Sin will be fully stocked with all spirits but given the same attention to detail Carnevale has become known for (the bartender once worked at downtown’s fine-dining establishment manna and its offshoot craft cocktail bar, Earnest Money and Sons).

“We obviously are in an old church, so the spin on the name is Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit as the original sin,” Tatum said. “Talking with Luke, we’re thinking we would definitely have some stuff on our menu that is fruit- or Apple-driven to play into that theme, tap into some cider beers outsourced from different places.”

The bar itself will seat around half a dozen people, with lounge areas spaced throughout. It’s a possibility acoustic acts could set up, but those details still have to be hashed out.

Original Sin likely won’t be open until 2 a.m., as BAC is situated with homes nearby on the Northside. Tatum said the group has built a rapport with its neighbors and will close by midnight, if not earlier.

“We want it to be a special place for the neighborhood,” he said, “but also be respectful.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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