(Photo courtesy Dan Gigler/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The popular North Side music venue and the site of a tavern dating back to Prohibition will close its doors on November 11th, said co-owner Kevin Saftner.
“We don’t feel welcome [on the North Side] anymore,” said Mr. Saftner, citing an ongoing dispute with neighbors regarding noise levels that has resulted in numerous fines, threat of legal action and the possible classification of James Street as a nuisance bar.
The final straw came after an anonymous complaint last Thursday during a regular jazz jam session gig by veteran local musician Roger Humphries, who has been playing that room for years.
“I’m still in shock,” Mr. Saftner said when reached by phone. “But it hit me that we had to do it. All the issues we’ve had, it’s been a heavy burden. This has been a long time coming.”
And it comes despite Mr. Saftner having made numerous structural improvements to the building to mitigate noise — most notably a new air conditioning system installed last year so that the upstairs ballroom windows wouldn’t need to be opened during shows when the heat in the room would become stifling. He also installed other soundproofing measures.
Mr. Saftner initially posted the announcement on his Facebook page Wednesday evening:
“It is with a heavy heart that I must announce James Street will be closing on November 11th. THANK YOU FOR ALL OF THE SUPPORT over the past 6 years. It truly has meant the world to the entire James Street Family. It has been an incredible journey and we are thankful for every memory. James Street may be done, but the spirit of togetherness that made this place special will live on. Please continue to support the great musicians, bands, artists, Production companies, promoters, burlesque performers, drag kings and queens & numerous other amazing community organizations that became part of the family over the years.”
The main floor’s back bar is among the most handsome in the city. A phalanx of lions carved into the tops of the African mahogany cabinetry that was carved by a neighborhood craftsman in 1926 (during Prohibition) for the then princely sum of $3,000. It was part of an upstairs speakeasy — now the main ballroom — and was later brought down piece by piece and reconstructed in the downstairs space where it now sits.
Nicks, scrapes and scratches atop the bar, smoothed by time, create a patina of nearly 90 years of Pittsburgh barroom history. The oak paneling around it came from a mansion in nearby Manchester.
Craig Poole, who owned it for 17 years as the James St. Tavern, said that Art Rooney Sr. once also owned the building, which dates at least to 1898 (the original deeds were destroyed in a fire). Founded as a bicycle and clock shop, the top floor was once also a secret meeting spot for socialist and labor groups.
In the decades since, it’s had many names, notably Wiggin’s, Julian’s and the James St. Tavern — where legends like George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Jeffrey Osborne and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band graced the stage. The downstairs speakeasy bar also is a popular venue, and there is a full-service kitchen.
Mr. Saftner said he has leased the building for the past six years and does not know what the owner will do with it. He said that his most immediate priority is trying to help his staff find work.
“I still have the liquor license and the kitchen and sound equipment, so the opportunites are endless, but I have no game plans at all right now other than to make sure my employees have a job.”
He also said that they will likely plan some farewell events in the weeks to come.
Mr. Saftner also helped to co-found the Deutschtown Music Festival, an annual summer event that has over the past five years brought hundreds of bands and thousands of music fans to the North Side.