Features

At 40th birthday bash, GCB raises a glass to itself

By
Staff Writer
Monday, October 19, 2009

On their 21st birthdays, Brown undergrads often flock to the Graduate Center Bar for a night of celebration. This Saturday night, the GCB threw a party for its own birthday — and at 40, the GCB is still looking pretty good.

Susan Yund, who has been the manager of the GCB for 15 years, said business is strong and growing steadily. But the history of the bar hasn’t always been smooth.

In 1968, the city of Providence denied the Faculty and Graduate Student Council’s request for a liquor license for a bar in the basement of the brand new Graduate Center. The club appealed the city’s decision, and the state ordered the license granted.

The next year, the bar opened as part of the Jelly Bean Lounge, on the bottom level of what is now the Bear’s Lair. Along with the wide selection of beers for which the bar is still known, the vividly colored campus hangout offered sandwiches, live entertainment and, according to a 1973 article in the Providence Journal, “stereo FM music.”

In 1972, Rhode Island became one of several states to lower its drinking age from 21 to 18 on the basis that 18-year-olds were old enough to vote and be drafted to fight in the war raging in Viet Nam. Consequently, Yund said, the GCB was “very, very successful back in the 70s and early 80s.”

But though the Grad Center complex was originally designed to cater to the social needs of graduate students, it never really caught on, said Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02, who lived there as a junior. Consequently, he remembers a GCB crowd that was “almost overwhelmingly undergrads.”

At the time, Miller said, there were no bars on Thayer Street, and only a few on the East Side. When the bar opened, “people were delighted with the novelty of having a place on campus where you could gather and you could also have something to drink.”

Miller said he frequently went to the bar on Saturdays with friends. His wife, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1972, “always found the Grad Center Bar a good place to go over and meet guys from Brown,” he added.

But soon, a rise in drunk-driving fatalities spurred many states to raise the legal drinking age again, a change ultimately mandated by the federal government in 1984. Rhode Island did so gradually, raising the limit to 19 in 1980, 20 in 1981 and 21 in 1984. As a result, Yund said, the bar “suffered for a few years,” a problem compounded by a move to a smaller space in 1986.

But since then, she said, traffic at the bar has continued to grow. “Just in the last couple of years we did some redesigning of the bars that allows us to double our draft-lines,” she said. The bar now carries 16 constantly changing varieties of beer on tap.

In the past two or three years, Yund said, the bar has also attracted an increasing number of RISD students, who can join for a discounted fee because the design school has purchased a bulk membership for its students.

“When I started working here (in 1990), it was almost exclusively grad students and faculty,” Yund said. “Med students are a fairly recent phenomenon.”

While the bar is still popular with undergrads, especially on Thursdays, she said, over the past 15 years the balance has shifted back toward its original goal — to be a social space for graduate students.

“Our charter is to serve the Brown community,” Yund said, which makes the bar different from for-profit ventures. “We do business honorably,” she said, noting that any profits from the bar are donated to local non-profit groups such as the food bank and Amos House, which works to help the state’s poor and homeless. All the money collected at Saturday’s event was donated to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

“For many people, we’re the first bar they’ve hung out in,” Yund said, adding that this makes the bar’s atmosphere unique — but also means that patrons sometimes leave small tips or don’t tip at all. “It’s frustrating to be the bar that trains them.”

Miller remembered one Saturday afternoon in particular that he spent at the GCB. As a senior, Miller was captain of the water polo team, then a club sport. “We were expecting to play a game, I think against Columbia,” he said. There was a misunderstanding, Miller said, and the opposing team called to say they’d be a few hours late.

In the meantime, Miller and his team went to the GCB — bringing along the game’s referee. The other team eventually arrived ready to play, but not before the Brown team had spent a few hours in the bar and consumed a few beers.

“We won the game, by the way,” he added.

Though he does not have many memories of the GCB, Miller does have a tangible record of his evenings there.

“We still have a glass beer mug that I swiped from the Grad Center Bar,” he said. “I hope they’re not going to come after me.”