Updating Gloucester City, icon by icon

Tom Page (left) and Tom Monahan have resurrected Chubby’s, offering a new take on a beloved, long-gone night spot and steak house in Haddon Township. The new version is expected to open in the spring.

In Gloucester City, history waits just beneath the surface, and roots run deep.

Consider the latest undertaking by entrepreneur Tom Monahan, who resurrected a venerable taproom at Burlington and Hudson as Max's Seafood Cafe 15 years ago, and is re-creating a vintage South Jersey dining brand a block away.

Chubby's, an updated take on a beloved, long-gone nightspot and steak house in nearby Haddon Township, is expected to open in the spring.

Monahan says he and his business partner, Tom Page, own the rights to the name and have been in touch with relatives of the late Joseph J. "Chubby" Stafford, the professional boxer who founded the original establishment in 1933.

"This original tin ceiling was covered over," Monahan, 55, says as he and Page take me on a tour of their work in progress.

Monahan had a similar stroke of historical good fortune at Max's, where he removed an ugly drop ceiling and discovered the majestic carved peaks of the oak bar that quickly became a signature of the place.

At Burlington and Monmouth, the building that will become Chubby's was formerly the home of Fiedler's Pharmacy and most recently served as a doctor's office.

Page, 54, a self-described "Gloucester kid" and lifelong resident whose father, Jack, established the city's Needy Children's Fund, remembers going to the pharmacy as a boy.

Although dismal brick-patterned asbestos siding obscured some of its windows and much of its charm, portions of the building's interior were "like a time capsule," Page adds.

A third-floor light fixture with a Star of David motif was a reminder that the city once was home to a substantial Jewish community.

And a mahogany staircase attested to the craft and care with which a commercial building and upstairs apartment was constructed in 1907.

Blue-collar Gloucester, with 11,500 residents in less than three square miles along the Delaware River, is a tough town with a tenacious pride of place.

"It's had ups and downs, but I have seen some really good things happening in recent years," retired city police detective lieutenant Joe Hargesheimer says.

Monahan and Page, he adds, "are breathing new life into a historic part of the city."

No simple task, that.

"Bringing an old building up to today's codes is not easy," says retired carpenter Tom Maxwell, who's helping Monahan and Page with the renovations.

The three men were Sacred Heart School classmates. And other folks who live, grew up in or have enduring Gloucester connections also are involved in the Chubby's project.

City art teacher Janey Dean and her nonprofit group Future Artists Now restored the vintage magnificence of that tin ceiling.

Five Gloucester High School students earned money as apprentices on the ceiling work, she says.

And Bob Glennan, who regularly performs Irish music at Max's with his son, Patrick, volunteered to drive to Chicago last winter to pick up the stunning 1930s bar Monahan bought online.

Except for the snowstorm, a truck breakdown, and a pressed-for-time Illinois warehouse crew, Glennan says, "it was fun."

The cargo he brought back to Gloucester - a marvel of mirrors, cobalt glass, and polished curves - is meant to recall the atmosphere of Chubby's in its heyday, Monahan says.

The original establishment opened as Prohibition ended, and evolved over time into a first-class entertainment venue and gathering place for movers and shakers.

Chubby's, known as a "one and a half" joint for the amount of shots bartenders poured into mixed drinks, was among several South Jersey businesses opened by former professional boxers.

But while Donkey's Steaks in Camden and O'Donnell's Restaurant in Gloucester are still going strong, Chubby's closed in January 1995.

Its Mount Ephraim Avenue site across from Camden's Fairview section is now home to a CVS.

"I didn't want to see Chubby's left for dead," says Monahan over coffee at Max's.

The ornate bar, big windows, and city streets outside create a sense of being somewhere special.

"I love this city," he says, noting that his grandmother and an uncle both ran bars on Gloucester's Broadway. "It has so much potential, so much history.

"We recognize that history at Max's," Monahan adds. "And we're going to recognize it at Chubby's."

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