Business is decidedly not booming Friday night at the Legacy. Even in mid-January, a forlorn plastic Christmas tree droops at one end of the establishment’s chipped, unvarnished wood bar, and a faded paper Santa Claus face stares through an unwashed window out onto an empty stretch of S. Kildare Ave. In the weak glow given off by the Legacy’s paltry collection of faux-tiffany lamps, three surly longtime regulars mingle uneasily with a handful of young hipsters while Salvatore, the idle short-order cook, lounges near the kitchen door taking drags off a limp cigarette. Improbably enough, this forsaken watering hole is embroiled in the city’s most controversial land-use fight in decades.
Just in case you’re thinking, “The Legacy what?” (and you probably are), here’s a quick primer on the city’s most dubiously historical saloon: Opened in 1909 on the bottom floor of the J. J. Cotton Building, the Legacy (then known as the Cotton Canteen) became the ad hoc cafeteria for employees of the Legacy Carriage Company, which ran horse-drawn cabs out of an adjacent garage until the animals were banned from city streets (along with mules and elephants) in 1931. As the rapidly declining livery district gave way to a burgeoning skid row, the end of Prohibition gave the Cotton Canteen a new lease on life; owner Freddy “French” Otterman obtained a liquor license, transformed his lunch counter into a dive bar, and renamed it the Legacy Diner to honor his defunct neighbor.
For the next seven decades, a clientele composed largely of vagrants called the Legacy their home away from homelessness, even as fond memories of the once-hectic cafe faded into oblivion. Shunned by developers (and, ironically, the city’s public transportation system), the Livery District – and the Legacy along with it – faced little hope of recovery when the city came calling in 2004. Armed with the authority of eminent domain, it was the city’s intention to purchase the J. J. Cotton building from current owner Bud “Burger” Otterman and convert it into a firehouse to serve arson-plagued Antique Row, just blocks away on Wonsley Blvd. Otterman appeared compliant, cooperating quietly with authorities through October 2006, when the city threw him a final buyout offer that lowballed his asking price by almost 375,000 dollars.
Otterman responded by hiring a lawyer and a publicist. He applied for historical landmark protection (still pending) and finagled a cover story from the Alternative Weekly (one of our local alternative weeklies) in which he made a twofold case for the Legacy’s significance.
Firstly, Otterman declared, despite established local lore, that the Legacy Diner had invented the yak roll. A sandwich of stewed ox tail served with peach gravy in a halved and hollowed-out loaf of French bread, it’s one of the city’s decidedly less popular signature dishes, but one that has enjoyed continuing popularity at Martha’s Conestoga, that Grume Ave. institution heavily favored by newspaper writers. Otterman’s proof consists entirely of an ancient framed news clipping from the Gazette that mentions a “blubbery beef concoction” enjoyed by the author at the Cotton Canteen in February, 1911, which would beat Martha’s long-recognized claim to the first “yakker” by over a year. Otterman’s doubtful assertion is made moreso by a cursory inspection of the Legacy’s own collection of past menus, which suggest that the Canteen served nothing other than boiled horsemeat before 1926.
The second and more problematic of Otterman’s contentions (especially for the denizens of Antique Row and their utterly flammable wares) is the Legacy’s mushrooming claim to cult film legend. From 1979 to 1983, local filmmaker Stan Golson shot parts of seven movies in and around the J. J. Cotton building, including five inside the Legacy. While Golson’s films were initially dismissed as (and remain) distasteful pornography, they have recently been revived as particularly florid and culturally important examples of distasteful pornography. In Golson’s magnum opus, The Magniloquent Crotch (1982), the Legacy’s familiar barflies are clearly visible in the background of a pivotal scene of “interspecies facial abuse,” as Golson puts it. The auteur’s boosters now include a cross-section of bohemian twenty-somethings and middle-aged porno hounds – certain of whom are tenured professors in the George Easterburg State College film department.
Golson’s emergence late last year as a kind of Warholian figure atop the city’s underground art scene dovetailed with the sudden efforts to save the Legacy Diner from the wrecking ball, and the dive became an instant touchstone of sorts, as well as an unlikely hangout for Golson and his entourage – despite its location several miles from the artist lofts sprinkled throughout the Little Kishinev neighborhood.
To the dismay of the city council, Otterman’s efforts have paid off, successfully (if tepidly) bringing our revered Preservation Fellowship to the Legacy’s defense. Says Fellowship chairman James Hangworth, shrugging, “we kind of have to try and save it now, I guess.”