Old Library, New Chapter

Bar 1903 brings new life to a storied space
Bar 1903 Old Fashioned
Bar 1903’s menu of classic cocktails includes an Old Fashioned poured over a customized ice cube. Other favorites include a Sazerac and a Manhattan. Photo by Pablo Gabes courtesy of Bar 1903

More than a century ago, this small, brick building was a place frequented by knowledge seekers. Today, it attracts people who appreciate a novel menu of classic cocktails and creative cuisine. The storied David S. Walker Library has embarked on a new chapter.

Bar 1903, named for the year the library was built, is the latest incarnation of the historic setting at 209 E. Park Ave. in downtown Tallahassee.

“I’m definitely proud of the place,” said chef and restaurateur Jesse Edmunds of the Seven Hills Hospitality Group, which owns Bar 1903 and four other local restaurants. “I’m proud that we worked together with a lot of people in the city to make it a reality. It was a team effort.”

Renovating a building that’s listed on the National Registry of Historic Places requires a high level of dedication and commitment.

“When I was first told what was going to be in there, I never imagined it being as wonderful as what it is,” said Elizabeth Emmanuel, chief executive officer of the Tallahassee Downtown Improvement Authority. “The level of attention to detail is a testament to their care for and concern for the history of the space.”

Bar 1903 was, in fact, named the Tallahassee-Leon County Historic Preservation Award winner in October. Edmunds managed to retain the building’s historic fabric, said Shannon Kuch, executive director of the Tallahassee Trust.

Bar 1903

Bar 1903 offers a topflight wine list, regional craft beers, cocktails and mocktails. Photos by Pablo Gabes courtesy of Bar 1903

Walker, the building’s namesake, was the eighth governor of Florida, and offered the use of rooms at his property for a reading room in the 1880s, the first step in launching a library.

In more recent times, the building was the headquarters for Springtime Tallahassee before going up for sale
in 2019.

“There was just a little sign saying it was for sale,” said Matthew Cooper, who purchased the building with John Kane, his real estate partner with Skylight Partners LLC, for $350,000.

“I thought it was a really great building,” Cooper said. “We wanted to preserve it.”

He and Kane then found the man they trusted to take over the Walker Library: Jesse Edmunds.

“He had a really cool plan,” Cooper said. “And the building would be open to the public.”

The plan: Bar 1903 — Library of Cocktails.

Crafting Cocktails

Crafting cocktails at Bar 1903 is an exacting process. Photos by Pablo Gabes courtesy of Bar 1903

Renovations were a labor of love. Edmunds and his team hand-milled wood for the top of the bar and built the back kitchen and the bathrooms.

On Feb. 7, 2020, about four months after the acquisition of the space, Bar 1903 opened its doors. But the new business had to close six weeks later when COVID-19 hit.

“Bar 1903 opened right before the pandemic, and it was one of the first buildings I wanted to visit after the world opened back up,” Emmanuel said.

The place exudes warmth, decorated in neutral hues, with antique sconces and heart pine flooring. A portrait of David S. Walker hangs over the fireplace. The ceiling is at least 20 feet high with a cupola flanked by small windows. 

A narrow staircase leads to a skinny walkway that encircles the main room, but it’s not workable for serving the public, said Edmunds, whose other venues are Liberty Bar & Restaurant, El Cocinero, the Hawthorn Bistro & Bakery and Black Radish.

Old Library New Chapter 3

The David Shelby Walker Library building contrasts, inside and out, with its far more contemporary neighbor on Park Avenue. The building is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Photo by Pablo Gabes courtesy of Bar 1903

Bar 1903’s intimate setting does bring challenges. The room can only accommodate 36 people, and there’s no standing at the bar. If it’s filled, the host will keep your place and call your cell when a table is available. You have about 15 minutes to come back and get seated.

The Walker building may have evolved from words to whiskey, but Bar 1903 embraces its library theme.

The spirits selection includes a stellar wine list, regional beer choices, house cocktails and mocktails. The historically themed cocktail compendium gets special attention.

“It’s been inspired by other amazing programs in the country,” Edmunds said. “It’s an homage to one of my favorite bars on the planet, The Roosevelt Room in Austin.”

Bar 1903’s collection starts with the “Pre-1880s” page titled “The Beginning.” It includes a Sazerac, Prescription Julep and a Manhattan. The “2000-Now Renaissance and Rebirth” section features a White Negroni, the Naked and Famous (with mezcal and Chartreuse) and Trinidad Sour.

“You don’t have to always reinvent the wheel,” said bar manager Austin Conatser. “They’re classic recipes, and there’s a reason they’ve stood the test of time.”

Mixologists may put their personal spin on some classics or trendy drinks.

Bar 1903’s appeal, however, isn’t just about spirits. The seasonal menu is a prime attraction.

Favorites include a roasted vegetable bruschetta, comforting soups, sandwiches on homemade breads, deviled eggs and a choice of boards, whether you prefer an artisan cheese board, burrata antipasto or the chef’s spreads and dips. Don’t miss the flourless chocolate cake or Bar 1903’s take on a Pop Tart.

The food menu

The food menu includes mostly boards and small plates. Customers choosing to chase a good cocktail with food enjoy burrata antipasto, deviled eggs, dips and spreads, including sun-dried tomato tapenade, creamy spinach and artichoke dip, and pimento cheese dip, served with crostini and accoutrements. Photo by Pablo Gabes courtesy of Bar 1903

The food, cocktails and setting combine for a venture that’s extended the history of a beloved building.

“There is truly something special about this place,” said Tyler Sheridan, former general manager. “The interior and the history of the space brings a magic to the city. It’s a really cool place to be.” 

Bar 1903

Bar 1903 is located at 209 E. Park Ave. | (850) 354-9739

David Shelby Walker Library building

Photo by Pablo Gabes Courtesy of Bar 1903

Early Years

The David Shelby Walker Library building has been a Tallahassee fixture since the 19th century.

» In 1884, Florida’s eighth governor offered the use of upstairs rooms for a library in a building he owned.

» After Walker died, his wife donated the adjacent lot for a library. The building was named after her husband. Use of the private library required a subscription.

» The Walker building survived downtown development on a few occasions. In 2016, construction began on the Ballard Building, which surrounds the historic structure on three sides. But the Walker library, and its intrinsic elegance, were left intact.

Categories: Bars