PRESCOTT — On a late morning suited to early drinking, 67-year-old Bill Hirschberg pushed through the bat-wing doors of the Palace Restaurant and Saloon.
He walked across a wooden floor that groaned with each step, perhaps as it did 117 years ago when it encountered its first pair of cowboy boots.
Hirschberg nodded to the young woman tending the historic bar, the one carved of solid oak that that has survived a thousand spilled drinks and one enormous fire.
A gray-bearded cowboy stood at the end of the bar, looking as if he’d just stepped out of the 1880s, down to the (unloaded) pistols on his hips. Hirschberg had been here often enough to recognize the Palace’s maitre d’. Tourists get a kick out of being escorted to their table by a Western icon.
But if the maitre d’ was part of the Old West window dressing, the handful of bullet holes in the pressed-tin ceiling were not. Likely a result of drunken celebration, the damage adds an air of authenticity.
The barrel-chested Hirschberg, a Vietnam veteran who has been a Palace regular for 44 years, weaved through the lunch crowd toward the patio, where he can still light up one of his hand-rolled cigarettes.
Not like the old days, when the smell of stale beer and fresh smoke slapped you when you opened the heavy, leaded-glass door, people at the bar shielding their eyes from unwelcome light.
Hirschberg now walked through a sanitized Palace. It looked much as it did when it opened in 1901 and was the grandest bar along Whiskey Row.
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In the Palace’s earliest days, it hosted pursuits unsavory yet appropriate for the times. Now the only gambling devices are the ones tucked into display cases like museum pieces. And the saloon’s cribs, which once supported the world’s oldest profession, have been converted into office space where money is tracked rather than exchanged.
Hirschberg heard the old timers complain when the joint was cleaned up and pints of cold craft beer were passed across the bar more often than shots of whiskey. They stayed away, heading into places more conducive to their brand of nostalgia.
But not Hirschberg. He still comes to the Palace a few times a week, settling on the back patio for a smoke and a drink.
The changes have done nothing to alter his appreciation for the Palace.
“The old timers still complain it’s not the bar they remember,” he said, rolling another cigarette. “But not me. Change is inevitable. Go with it.”
Drinking while the Palace goes up in flames
You can clean the smoke stains from the Palace’s ceiling and sand out the initials carved into its bar, but you can never erase the stories that accompany Arizona’s oldest drinking establishment.
Its most legendary tale goes back to the night of July 14, 1900, and a forgotten candle.
The story is almost too perfect. The candle ignited a fire that swept through downtown Prescott. As flames and explosions took out one building after another, the miners and ranch hands drinking in the Palace risked their lives to pull the immense wooden bar to safety.
Then they toasted their efforts from the safety of Courthouse Plaza across the street as the fire destroyed everything in its path.
The impossibly good tale could make any historian wonder if it really happened. Brad Courtney set out to find the truth, but was hoping the story actually happened.
“It’s a story at the heart of the Palace,” he said.
At first his research turned up nothing. Then Courtney spied a rare photo of one of the shacks hastily erected outside the Yavapai County Courthouse to house businesses displaced by the fire.
Above the door, it said “Palace.” And there, just visible through the doorway, was the bar.
The one inside today’s Palace.
“No doubt in my mind that’s the same bar,” said Courtney, author of “Prescott’s Original Whiskey Row.” “In the four years of research before the book came out, I hit that story hard. The good news is that it’s true.”
The soul of Prescott
Over the years, the tale solidified the Palace Saloon’s place in Prescott history. If Courthouse Plaza is the town’s heart, the Palace is its soul, where people came to drink and celebrate, to gamble and curse, to find love and satisfy lust.
The Palace has roots back to 1864, Courtney said, saying the commonly accepted date of 1877 (emblazoned in gold on the bar’s front window) was the result of faulty research.
Its legend, however, extends back to the 1900 Whiskey Row fire, when water-starved firefighters were forced to blow up several buildings in hopes of stopping the flames.
It reopened in 1901 with a stately granite facade that still stands out on Montezuma Street. Built for $50,000 ($1.3 million today), it had a barber shop, tailor, gambling hall and Chinese kitchen. According to accounts at the time, it was the grandest building on Whiskey Row.
It was also Prescott’s finest saloon. It had hardwood floors, a 25-foot-high pressed-tin ceiling and a large, elegant back bar displaying some of the finest liquor in Arizona. It was the place to do business, discuss the politics of the day or simply blow off steam.
Men bought their 5-cent beers with gold dust, or took their chances at the faro table or roulette wheel. Other needs could be satisfied with a press of a small black button on the wall opposite the bar, ringing a bell in one of the cribs.
When Arizona outlawed gambling in 1907 — setting a moral standard favorable for statehood — local lawmen turned a blind eye to the Palace’s gaming, according to stories in the Arizona Republican (now the Republic).
Prohibition made nary a dent in the Palace’s activities. Arizona outlawed liquor in 1915, four years before the federal government did, and the saloon went underground, opening a speakeasy In the basement. According to the Republican, lawmen would drive around the block twice to warn of an impending raid.
The Palace made headlines again in January 1957 when its owner, in full view of customers, shot his fourth wife after an argument and then calmly walked out as she said, “It doesn’t matter, honey, I still love you.” Four months later Herbert “Shell” Dunbar was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and fined $5,000, his wife Sally by his side. They sold the bar in July 1958 for $100,000 (about $850,000 today).
The Palace became one of Barry Goldwater’s favorite watering holes. It also played a sizable role in “Junior Bonner,” a 1972 film starring Steve McQueen as rodeo cowboy (and featuring a bar fight that may have been among the Palace’s tamest).
It was a bar by locals for locals.
Goodbye deck shoes, hello six-shooters
Palace Saloon and Restaurant owner Dave Michelson talks about the history of the bar, November 6, 2017, at the Palace Saloon and Restaurant 20 S. Montezuma Street, Prescott, Arizona.
When Dave Michelson walked into the Palace for the first time, he was known to wear a Hawaiian shirt, khakis and boat shoes.
The bar had its own look — dark with a thick scent of smoke, beer and whiskey.
Now when Michelson pushes into the saloon as its owner, he is Cowboy Dave, dressed in denim with a dark vest, black cowboy hat and ace-of-spades boots.
He enters a Palace that’s bright, airy and tourist-friendly, where customers are more apt to order a designer cocktail than a shot of, well, anything.
A few old timers still complain that Michelson has erased history, turning the saloon into a coffee shop.
Others believe he’s restored the past, reviving the Palace’s splendor.
Either way, he’s happy.
“This is my vision,” Michelson said, the saloon spread out below as he stood on the stairs outside his office (and former crib). “I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”
The experienced restaurateur had no plans to expand his business horizons when he, his wife and their two children moved to Prescott from San Diego in 1994.
Michelson embraced the small-town feel of Prescott and wanted his kids to experience a lifestyle that was becoming more difficult to find. Maintaining his co-ownership in a small restaurant chain in southern California, he commuted every 10 days.
Michelson was an occasional customer at the Palace, more as a history buff than a satisfied customer. An avid collector of antiques, the saloon’s story drew him in.
But its condition nearly drove him away.
“It was in awful shape,” Michelson said. “The kitchen, the bathrooms, the odors. I don’t mean to disparage those who were in charge, but it was just run down.”
In 1996, Michelson found out the Palace lease was available. He struck a deal with the building’s owners. He became a regular visitor to the photo archives of the Sharlot Hall Museum, poring over photos from the early 20th century.
The grandeur of the Palace shone through the worn and faded black-and-white images. Men wearing period clothing and dour expressions posed within, made small by the saloon’s expansive interior.
It was dominated then, as it is now, by the 24-foot-long walnut bar topped with cherry wood. The back bar towers over the bartenders, who use stepladders to reach the highest shelves.
Restoring the Palace’s history
Michelson wanted that saloon, the one in the photos. Not the place where boards were nailed over the back windows, blocking the late afternoon light that once filled the room. A stage hung from the ceiling, providing a second line of defense against natural light.
But worst of all, Michelson said, was what had been done to the bar.
Not only was it showing the wear and tear of spilled drinks and lit cigarettes, but several sets of initials had been carved into its surface. At some point, workers extended the bar with plywood and stain, a cheap imitation that was among the first things Michelson demolished.
And he felt very good doing it.
Michelson ripped the boards from the back windows and took a sledgehammer to the stage. He tore linoleum from behind the bar and removed a pool table that, for some reason, was in the middle of the kitchen.
Once he rid the saloon of what didn’t belong, he oversaw restoration of what did.
With the faded photos as a reference, workers sanded and refinished the bar and hardwood floor. Walls were repaired and 100 years of smoke was erased from the tin ceiling, which was then repainted by artists lying atop scaffolding, a la Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.
He then upgraded the kitchen and added a restaurant, because he needed tourists to sustain the business.
Hirschberg, who said he once worked as a bouncer, said some regulars complained that their cherished bar was being turned into a coffee shop.
On Oct. 29, 1996, the leaded-glass front doors were unlocked and the Palace Saloon again took center stage along Whiskey Row.
The new Palace, back to its old charm
Four years ago, Scott Stanford was managing a small part of a large restaurant chain. One of his duties was to maintain consistency. One location should not stand out from another.
Stanford said he enjoyed his job and did it well.
And left it behind without a second thought when he received an offer to run an establishment like no other.
That offer to become general manager came from none other than Cowboy Dave, whose caricature graced bottles of the Palace’s signature hot sauce.
Stanford knew the Palace Saloon as a customer and enjoyed its turn-of-the-century charm. He dressed up the menu, offering more contemporary items to go with the steaks.
Now there’s mussels and prawns to a fried mix of Brussels sprouts and pancetta.
He then brought the same attention to historic detail to staff members.
Stanford ordered uniforms from a New York clothier specializing in period attire. Men donned black pants and vests with white shirts, with sleeve garters attached to each biceps. Women wore flowing skirts with puffy blouses or corsets.
Craft beer joined whiskey. Visitors could also buy souvenir T-shirts.
The cash registers sang. Business had steadily improved, and Stanford said the summer of 2017 included the four most lucrative months since he came on in 2013.
Now the Palace is set for the next 117 years.
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