It takes a lot to close the iconic Irish Pub in Atlantic City, most recently it was Hurricane Sandy, but a man who was refused service because he was too intoxicated left the pub on St. James Place Sunday afternoon and had some trouble executing his getaway. Witnesses said he crashed a grey SUV into the stained and leaded glass exterior of the pub and hotel, built in 1900, pushing rubble and bricks all the way to the mahogany bar and denting the brass foot rail at the front. Incredibly, only one patron suffered some minor cuts and everyone who had been in the front had moved somewhere else at the time the car came crashing through.
The place is a classic time warp of stained glass, rugs, old posters, wooden walls and elaborate wallpaper upstairs. It's still a throwback to its Boardwalk Empire days when it operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It was bought in the 50s by current owners Cathy and Richard Burke who have presided over its dark and friedly bar glory with a loving and generous 24/7 spirit. "This is a great place, theyr'e so hospitable, they just give and give and give," said City Councilman Steven L. Moore, who stopped by the bar Monday morning to offer his support. "This is your Boardwalk Empire, the part you can still feel today. You can feel Nucky in here."
Manager Frank Pileggi, above in the upstairs inn area, said they did not believe the man intended to drive into the building as some sort of payback for being refused service. "He asked to use the bathroom," Pileggi said. "We're not going to say no. He picked up his coat at the bar and walked out. The bartender said, that was easy."
But a few moments later - surveillance film showed the man's car fishtailing on an icy parking lot across the street - the car rammed through the building with a loud boom, smoke and rubble everywhere. The man, Donald Preston Jr., 50, of Pleasantville, reversed his car and drove out of the building but then stopped. He was taken into custody at the scene and charged with driving while intoxitcated, said A.C. Police Spokeswoman Monica McMenamin. Pileggi said the man was dazed afterwards and said, "Did I do that?" when people from the pub went to his car.
"We're very fortunate," said Pileggi. "In that area, people will stand there, there's a radioator where people put their drinks, an ATM machine. There used to be a cigarette machine. It was just a miracle."
The building is stronger than you might think, built of brick with turn of the century finishes and strong bones, as they say. It was used as a fallout shelter in the 50s, Pileggi said. "That's why a building like this can absorb and SUV driving through it." Two rectangular stained glass pieces from the exterior wall were damaged, along with mahogony interior, slight damage to the bar and rail, and the outside wall. But owner Rich Burke was already meeting with engineers and plumbers to arrange for it to be fixed. Police and fire secured the building and while the bar was closed, the upstairs hotel was deemed safe. Most of the pictures seemed to be intact and were piled up inside the bar.
Waitress manager Tracy Talley, who was behind the bar when the SUV crashed through, said as scary as it was, it could have been so much worse. "For some reason people had just moved away," from that area, she said. "One guy was in the bathroom. Three guys had been waiting for their parents but were walking back toward the tables. We were so lucky."
Along with Dock's Oyster House and the Knife and Fork Inn, the Irish Pub harkens back to the old Atlantic City that can be sometimes hard to summon up. "There's only a handful of us," said Pillegi, who father managed the 500 Club. And so the police and firefighters took pains to guard the place overnight and still had a detail there Monday morning. It's a place people care about. Talley said the bar would be open as soon as possible; people were in fact picking their way past the rubble Sunday night to walk inside, assuming the always open place was still open. "As soon as it can be open, it will. "We would open with a tarp on it if we could. People keep coming in."