“I can’t believe I found it,” said Courtney Erickson on Wednesday afternoon at the Royal Palm Tavern in Collegetown. The Cornell University alumnus had driven from his hometown, Schenectady, on a mission — to find his late mother’s name, carved into one of the wooden tables at the popular bar in 1953.
Erickson hadn’t really thought in years about the mark his mom, also a Cornell alum, had left behind until he learned recently that the bar was closing at the end of the month. He’d last thought about it as a student, when he found her name about twenty years ago, and carved his own initials a few inches away on the same table. Then Stephanie Terni, she’d carved “TERNI” into one of three heavy, wooden picnic tables that have been at the bar for decades. Even though nearly sixty years have passed, and countless others have added their initials or Greek society letters, much of her name is still readable.
Signs of the tavern’s age include a wooden phone booth, whose pay phone was removed about seven years ago. (The proliferation of cell phones, especially among college students, has meant a sharp drop in the number of pay phones in public places.) Believe it or not, that’s the new phone booth. A painted-over “Telephone” sign is still visible over the original booth, now used for storage and a stereo shelf, below the flat-screen TV at the end of the bar. Vintage jukebox controls still sit at each of the wooden booths, alternately labeled “Royal Palm Tavern” and “It’s Miller Time,” but the jukebox they controlled has long since been replaced. Countless photos, postcards, stickers, and beer decals decorate the walls. Accessible plaster has been carved or written on over the years.
The Royal Palm Tavern, or just The Palms, opened in 1941 and has served area college students and residents for over seventy years, with a wide clientele that included Cornell and Ithaca College students and professors, staff from nearby businesses, and construction workers finishing a day at one of the many new buildings assembled nearby over the years.
Paradoxically, when Cornell and IC students are out of town, the Palms fills up with college-age Ithaca residents back in town for their winter break. It’s an unexpected hotspot on Christmas.
Current bar owners Joe and Len Leonardo, who took over from their father and uncle in the ’80s, say a steady decline in business over the last several years is behind their decision not to renew their lease, and to close the bar. Reasons for the decline include the rise in drinking age to 21 in the mid ’80s, no-smoking laws affecting bars and restaurants, an increasing tendency for college students to drink at home before going out for just a short time before bars close, and even Cornell’s decision to move its Homecoming football game into the evening.
Joe Leonardo says Cornell’s Reunion and Homecoming weekends have always been successful for the bar, as generations of former students flocked back to visit a bar many say they always assumed would never close. Cornell’s steps to pack more and more activities into its alumni weekends, though, left less time for alums to find their own things to do, like congregating at Collegetown’s bars.
The Leonardos say the last several weeks have brought locals in for a last visit, and brought alumni from miles away. Many are looking for initials carved in the tables or wooden booths years ago, or for a painted ceiling tile. Len Leonardo says the first tile was painted in 1986, and the decorations range from rock album covers to shellacked-on photos of friends to fraternity and sorority crests.
Len adds that many visitors have asked about buying a favorite table or booth, or a ceiling tile that bears their name or brushstrokes, but he’s going to hold off on selling any of it. “If there are six names on a tile, how do you decide who gets it? Or if someone buys a table on impulse, maybe in a few years they’ll realize they don’t really have anywhere to keep it.” Instead, he says, it will all be stored for posterity, at least for now. (Some items might be for sale down the road.)
In a bit of poetic justice, the bar’s final night, February 29th, also happens to be the fourth anniversary of Stephanie Terni Erickson’s passing. “I thought the bar would be around forever,” said her son, Courtney, after taking a moment to call his brother, Philip, to tell him he’d found their mom’s name. Philip, also a Cornell alum who found his way to the Palms, now lives in Boston. The Palms will be open daily through the end of the month. The final “last call” will be at 1am Wednesday night.