Re-Bar certainly one of the city’s most historic extant nightclubs. In addition to being the venue Nirvana picked for their Nevermind release party—wherein the band got kicked out of their own show after sneaking a handle of Jack Daniel’s and then starting a cake fight—Re-Bar is home to the longest-running weekly house nights on the West Coast: the two-and-a-half-decade-old Seattle Poetry Slam, the birthplace of drag comedienne Dina Martina, as well as a safe space for generations of LGBTQ+ performers and patrons alike.
The building itself, located at 1114 Howell, is sort of an anomaly in that’s it’s historic in a way, not. It was built in 1930, so certainly, it’s old, but it’s single-story and not constructed particularly interestingly or well. Sitting at the foot of Capitol Hill, just a hair into the Cascade neighborhood, it’s a rectangular, reinforced-masonry structure—that probably does, appropriately, contain rebar—and has always been a bar or restaurant, replacing Pete’s Coffee Shop, an unassuming lunch counter that stood at Boren and Howell in the 1920s.
A boarding house also used to occupy this spot. In 1914, E. Vidal, “a man with family in great need,” posted several desperate ads in the Seattle Times (then the Seattle Daily Times) looking for work with 1114 Howell as his listed address. The same year, someone (perhaps also E. Vidal) was trying to sell resurrection plants for 15 cents. January of that year, Mr. and Mrs. J. Costello had a daughter while living at this address. In 1910, visiting French civil engineer Francois Duval died in his chair and was found by his landlady, Mrs. J. F. McCorkle, at 1114 Howell.
The Times also recounts two early instances of debauchery at this address. One, from June 17, 1928, recalls a time a Peter Comas, a cook at Pete’s, talked his way through an interaction with a burglar targeting Skagg’s Market next door, ultimately abandoning any delusions of being a hero: “Comas then bowed himself away from the stranger, and whistling cheerily to disguise his intent, returned to the coffee shop and procured a knife. He felt more like getting to the bottom of the thing then, he said. But he saw the stranger getting in a machine with two or three other fellows, and the desire to investigate faded.”
In another Times crime report, this one from May 26, 1930, a man saw his staggering reflection in a plate-glass window of the building, and, annoyed by what he perceived to be another intoxicated person, kicked the window in. “The peace of Howell Street was broken,” reads the Times piece. “Police arrived to find [the man] nursing a cut foot. They said he was very drunk.”
When the building that housed Pete’s was torn down, the new structure built in its place became the Night Hawk Tavern, often spelled as “the Nite Hawk” in old Seattle newspapers, and eventually started booking cabaret acts and gay entertainment in general. For a brief period around 1974 and 1975, it was Thirsty’s Tavern, which also hosted cabaret acts.
Until 1983, the building was dance club Axel Rock. It was owned by Alex Herbin, aka Axel, and his partner Rick, aka Rocky—but they both got sick during the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s and Herbin passed away quickly, causing the club to shut down.
Next, the building became Sparks Tavern, sometimes known as S, another gay and lesbian bar. Where its predecessors had mostly hosted cabaret, Sparks added full-length stageplays to the mix, such as a 1986 run of gay activist and playwright Doric Wilson’s Street Theatre. Seattle Times critic Tim Apello wrote, “[Wilson] made his auspicious Seattle directing debut last night at Sparks, a bar that sports a Harley dangling by chains from the ceiling. As a stage, the space is too long and narrow, but since the play is set on a Manhattan street circa 1969, the runway effect works OK.”
Same as it ever was. Well, except for the Harley.
Re-Bar moved into the gritty little space at Howell and Boren in January of 1990, spearheaded by Steve Wells and Patrick “Pit” Kwiecinski. As ever a gay bar, it became even more artsy and outrageous than its previous incarnations, gaining a quick rep as a home base for freaks, geeks, drag queens, bikers, punks, B-listers, wallflowers, wastoids, goths, grungers, drama nerds, and everybody else—and perhaps just a little more so than the bars in that lived in this location before it. As Wells commented to the Stranger in 2005, when he sold his share of the business, Re-Bar was singular as “…one of the few bars [in Seattle] where straight and gay people mixed and played black music… For a long time, straight people thought it was a gay bar and gay people thought there were too many straight people, but Re-bar is exactly what my partners and I wanted.”
Only a year after opening, Nirvana held their infamous Nevermind release party at Re-Bar, securing it a place forever in rock ‘n’ roll history, and the space later went on to be the testing ground for such queer theater icons as Dina Martina and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Writer and performance artist David Schmader got his start there as well, putting on his first three plays on the Re-Bar’s long, skinny stage.
Although the building itself isn’t that storied (er, literally—it’s only one story), the stories it does have is ghost stories. And how. Former owner Carla Schricker, aka DJ MC Queen Lucky, has a whole stash of them.
“One time, after closing, one of our bartenders was locking up the office door,” says Schricker. “The lights were out and her back was to the dance floor. She felt someone behind her, turned around, and saw a woman’s face in front of her. The bartender got the distinct feeling that this woman was mocking her, laughing at her for being startled. Then, this figure sort of got sucked into a little light, like old TVs when you turn them off—the screen would shrink into a little light, then blink off. That is how this figure disappeared.”
“Another time, a door guy was walking across the smaller stage after closing,” Schricker continues. “The lights were out. He was looking down and noticed someone in front of him, coming toward him. So, he did that dance we all do—go to your left, go to your right, trying to let the other person by. Instead of going past him, the shadow went through him. He said he felt a big whoosh. He was so freaked out, he stayed the night at another employee’s house.”
Patrons and staff report lots of whistling heard over the years, says Schricker. A bartender kept hearing whistling over by the men’s restroom after closing and was so freaked out that she refused to close alone again.
“Many people have said there is a BDSM daddy ghost there,” Schricker says of one of Re-Bar’s more famous ghost stories. “Someone also told me that back in the 1940s, it was some dive bar and a woman who was an alcoholic was there all the time, drinking her days away. She was very unhappy and chided people a lot in her drunken fuzzy way.”
In a listicle of haunted Seattle bars in the Stranger, Schmader fleshes out the spooky tales a bit more:
These stories will come from people you consider sane—they’ll speak in hushed tones of Re-bar’s two undead regulars, identified by a medium at a séance as a ‘70s-style leather daddy and a woman who owned the bar back in the ‘30s and died where the bar’s handicapped bathroom stands now. Another component of Re-bar’s haunting: a mysterious smell that infrequently but powerfully emanates from beneath the stage… “It’s a ghost-stink,” says a frequent Re-bar theater-maker. As for the leather daddy and the former proprietress… the former enjoys toying with the sound and lighting equipment, while the latter is content to sit at the west end of the bar after closing time, silently sobbing.
Grant Badger, a former longtime bartender, has some stories to tell as well, although they’re not the ghastly kind—just about the unique sense of community that surrounds the club.
“I learned everything I know about running a bar from Re-bar—how using [smaller, normal-sized] people at the door actually created less problems than big burly guys, that ethical business owners were possible in this world, and that creating a space where everyone was confused if it was a gay bar, theater space, dance club, punk venue, goth bar, or whatever really just made all the misfits come together and look out for it like a family treasure,” says Badger. “To this day, you can get away with only two door people there, even on huge nights, where normally a space that size, you’d use like six—and that’s because everyone on the inside of the bar looks out for it too.”
In September, KEXP’s Emily Fox spoke with Re-Bar co-owner Dane Wilson on an episode of the station’s Sound and Vision podcast—who revealed the building was recently listed for sale for $6.4 million by its owner, Diamond Parking. It isn’t a surprise for most, after watching scores of condos and Amazon skyscrapers spring up in the area all around it over the last five or ten years, but despite seeing it coming, Re-Bar’s community is still worried.
Wilson told Fox that we can expect at least two years before the buildings on the lot owned by Diamond, including the attached Midori Teriyaki and Market House Meats, could be razed.
There’s no word yet on the immediate future of Re-Bar’s future in the face of Seattle’s gentrification dragon—whether it will close permanently or find a new home elsewhere on on-site—but time will soon tell.