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BrownstoneBrownstone Contact: Elanor lee
Tom Clune and Rita Coriani met, appropriately enough, at a party; New Years Eve 1936 to be exact. The son of a Paterson police captain and the daughter of a Paterson silk mill owner, they were married in 1944.
This is Rita’s story…
After the war, Tommy and I were married and lived with my mother on Market Street. For years we had admired the desolate, burned out brownstone on the corner of Burhans Avenue and West Broadway, but the price tag, $10,000, was beyond our reach.
But then one day I was reading the classifieds and there it was, reduced to $5,000. Part of the property had been sold for development, and the big old house with the foot thick walls would have cost a fortune to tear down, so they cut the price and hoped someone would buy it. With money borrowed from my uncle, we did just that.
It was an uninhabitable shell: burned out, with no electricity and no water, but it had grand old fireplaces, a lovely brownstone exterior, and a storied past that included rumors of its part in the Underground Railroad. We thought it was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen.
The house sat alone on a large, rolling meadow. We entertained visions of renovating the house and living like landed gentry. But there was the problem of money. We didn’t have any, so we decided to live upstairs and devote the downstairs to gainful pursuit. We built a long bar with plenty of barstools and a couple of tables. A little more than a year after buying it, we moved in and opened the Brownstone House for business.
The original house was built in the early 1800’s, and we wanted to recreate an authentic colonial atmosphere. We preserved the hand hewn beams and open fireplaces, and filled the nooks and crannies with antique crocks, shaving mugs and anything else we could find. In the 1940s and 50’s, “good junk” was easy and cheap to come by. In fact, people often brought their castoffs right to our door. All of it was welcome, and much of it I still have and treasure.
As our reputation for drinks and grilled cheese sandwiches grew, customers began to ask for party facilities. At the time, banquet houses were a new idea and somewhat hard to find. To fill the need, we built a new room. We roasted chickens and beef, we mixed drinks, and we served cake. We hired some friends, and put family to work. A banquet house was born.
Over the years we added rooms and renovated space until our little neighborhood bar could accommodate 1,000 guests. We threw parties during blackouts and blizzards. Without any air conditioning, we held a wedding in a room so hot the candies bent in half. Once, a large group of customers ended up in the parking lot when our fireplace didn’t vent the smoke. It was truly a family business, and customers, employees and suppliers became our lifelong friends. It was fun, scary, rewarding, and overwhelming …it was our life.
Sometime during the late 1970’s, we started to think about retirement. We’d seen many ongoing banquet houses sold, only to disappear from the New Jersey landscape forever. We worried over the fate of our beloved Brownstone House. Sharing our concern was Albert “Tiny” Manzo. Tiny and Tommy shared a long and colorful association, complete with nicknames (“Faker” and “Chief”) and a motto (“This is gonna blow your mind!”). Together, they hatched their grandest plan – Tiny would buy the Brownstone House.
Passing a piece of our past on to another Paterson family; a family who knew and loved the Brownstone House, its history and its place in the community, made the transition much easier. And what a perfect choice we made. When I look at the Brownstone House today, I’m proud of what the Clune and Manzo families built in our hometown of Paterson, NJ. I know that Tommy and Tiny would be very proud too. In fact, I think it would “blow their minds…”