A.C.'s Irish Pub closed after auto crashes into it

The wooden bar and brass railing were dented when a SUV was driven into the Irish Pub in Atlantic City.
The wooden bar and brass railing were dented when a SUV was driven into the Irish Pub in Atlantic City. (AMY S. ROSENBERG / Staff)
Posted: January 29, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY It takes a lot to close the iconic Irish Pub in Atlantic City - before this week, the last time was Hurricane Sandy. But a man who was refused service Sunday afternoon left the pub on St. James Place and had some trouble executing his getaway.

Next thing anyone inside knew, his SUV was crashing through the front wall, landing in a heap of brick, old stained glass, and dark wood, denting the wooden bar and brass foot railings of this place just off the Boardwalk that dates back to before Prohibition (but has Foghat on the jukebox).

It then took a full 24 hours before the front door was literally locked, but the folks who run the storied bar finally had to concede to reality: The pub was closed.

Charged with DWI, careless driving, and failure to stop prior to entering the roadway was Donald Preston Jr., 50, of Pleasantville.

"I tell people we have no locks on the doors, but I guess we do," said Denny Stewart, who works handing out Irish Pub menus on the Boardwalk.

Of course, like any decent bar story, this one actually begins with, "This gentleman walked in ..." - to the pub, in the words of Frank Pileggi, on duty Monday in the upstairs hotel, which was still open.

As the man apparently was already toasted, the bartender refused him anything to drink. He asked to use the bathroom, which he did, then gathered up his coat and walked out. About a dozen patrons remained in the pub.

Witnesses and a surveillance tape then have the man spinning around the block and an icy parking lot in a gray SUV, fishtailing out of the parking lot, and heading straight into the front of the pub. Incredibly, only one patron suffered minor scrapes; everyone who had been in the front had moved somewhere else at the time the car came crashing through.

"For some reason, people had just moved away" from that area, said waitress manager Tracy Talley, who was behind the bar when the car came through. "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."

The place is a classic time warp of stained glass, rugs, old posters, wooden walls, musty rugs, and elaborate wallpaper upstairs. It's a throwback to the days of political boss Nucky Johnson, when it operated as a speakeasy. It was bought in the '50s by Cathy and Richard Burke, who have presided over its dark and friendly bar with a generous, 24/7 spirit.

"This is a great place, they're so hospitable, they just give and give and give," said City Councilman Steven L. Moore, who stopped by Monday morning to offer his support. "This is your Boardwalk Empire, the part you can still feel today. You can feel Nucky in here."

Pileggi said the staff did not believe the man intended to drive into the building as payback for being refused service, though there was some disagreement about that among people in the street outside Monday, especially the ones watching from the balcony next door.

"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."

After crashing, the man put the car in reverse, drove out, and stopped. Pileggi said the man was dazed afterward and said, "Did I do that?" when people from the pub went to his car. Several witnesses said the man burst into tears when handcuffed.

"We're very fortunate," said Pileggi. "In that area, people will stand there, there's a radiator 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 it appears at first glance, with its first-floor facade of stained glass windows. It was built of brick with turn-of-the-century finishes and has 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 an SUV driving through it."

Two rectangular stained glass pieces from the exterior wall were damaged, along with the mahogany interior. There was slight damage to the bar and rail and the outside wall, all the damage totaling about $100,000.

Richard Burke was meeting with engineers, insurance adjusters, and plumbers and hoped to reopen as soon as Friday.

Police and fire units secured the building and while the bar was closed, the hotel was deemed safe. Most of the pictures seemed to be intact and were piled up inside.

Along with Dock's Oyster House, Angelo's Fairmount Tavern, and the Knife & Fork Inn, the Irish Pub harks back to an Atlantic City that can be hard to summon up in a place that chews up its past.

"There's only a handful of us," said Pillegi, whose father managed the 500 Club. And so, police and firefighters took pains to guard the place overnight and into Monday morning. It's a place people care about.  

"This is the first time I've come down here and not gone for a drink there," said Jim McIlwain, 66, of River Edge, Bergen County, walking away from the locked door. "I've stood along that wall many times."

People were 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," Talley said. "We would open with a tarp on it if we could."





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