Welcome back, Tree Bar

By Columbus Alive
From the December 15, 2011 edition

On a crisp, clear day in early November, a handful of buddies are cleaning up a big mess by making an even bigger mess.

Inside the secluded rock ’n’ roll rumpus room once known as The Treehouse, the bar is covered with tools, cleaning supplies and McDonald’s cups. The carpet is ripped up, exposing concrete below. The patio is a dumping ground for wet and rotting wood. On the pool table rests a 24-pack of Miller Lite and an empty pizza box from Adriatico’s, fuel for the men on the roof patching a hole where the trunk of a silver maple used to be. In the room below, where many a musical memory was made, a stump remains, resolute.

The tree is gone. The Tree Bar carries on.

It’s not a bad trade for the Columbus music scene, which saw one of its unique, beloved institutions slip away last August when The Treehouse closed its doors.

Ryan Haye was not content to let the bar disappear. As an ad salesman at alternative radio station CD101, Haye worked with the deejay whose name once graced the bar, the late John Andrew “Andyman” Davis. Haye drank there regularly when Davis and Quinn Fallon owned the place from 1999-2008. His bands are among the many that stood face-to-face with that tree. He understands what’s so special about the bar and why so many people were sad to see it wither away.

“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say you can’t write a history of Columbus music without mentioning The Treehouse,” Haye says, perched on the roof.

Alt-rock icons Evan Dando, Johnette Napolitano and Cracker played there. Bob Pollard turned out for a Guided by Voices tribute there. Jon Stewart stopped by for a drink.

It was a hotbed for local roots rock ambassadors like Two Cow Garage, Lydia Loveless and Tim Easton. Lo-fi rock torchbearers Times New Viking hosted their first album release show there in 2005 so they could smoke while playing — Columbus’ smoking ban didn’t apply in Clinton Township back then.

Many of the staff’s bands made it their home base —The Kyle Sowashes, Peppercorn’s band The Whiles, Fallon’s X-Rated Cowboys. Haye’s band Ghost Shirt was practically the house band for a while.

That’s why, at his wife’s urging, Haye and his sister-in-law Roni Stiffler are reopening the business, now officially called The Tree Bar, starting with a preview concert on Friday, Dec. 23.

“It made business sense,” Haye says, “and it made sense historically.”

The good old days

Once upon a time, the cinder block building between King Avenue and Chambers Road housed University View Carryout. Not long after Barry Wear bought the building about 30 years ago, a tenant converted the space into a bar called The Hidden Cove. In the early ’90s, a group of regulars built an additional room around the giant silver maple in one weekend. Supposedly they were paid in beer.

By the time Davis and Fallon started hanging out at The Hidden Cove in the late ’90s, it was riddled with drug addicts and bullet holes. The secluded location and lack of parking made it hard to attract customers; the building’s poor construction made it tough to maintain.

“Nobody in their right mind would have set up anything like that,” Fallon said. “It has all this quirky charm. It’s only right because it’s so wrong.”

Fallon said the bar was on its fifth owner in five years when he and Davis bought the business in 1999 and renamed it Andyman’s Treehouse. It was an impetuous decision by young bar-hoppers — Fallon spent more time that night deciding which movie to rent from North Campus Video.

At first, they intended it to be nothing more than a friendly hangout. That changed when Fallon threw a concert in the tree room for Halloween 1999. Word spread rapidly, as if some exclusive rock ’n’ roll speakeasy had sprung up in Clinton Township. Suddenly people had a reason to venture down Pereco Alley. The hard-to-find bar became “hard to find, harder to leave.”

Andyman’s Treehouse became a hangout for many subsets of the Columbus music scene, a hub for “all these great weirdos,” as longtime bartender and open mic host Joe Peppercorn put it.

“It just kind of feels like you’re playing in your grandpa’s rec room,” said Kyle Sowash, who’s been hanging out there for a decade and booking concerts there nearly as long.

Columbus rockers Watershed played often at Andyman’s Treehouse. Singer-bassist Joe Oestreich so revered the place that he wrote about it for Esquire’s feature on the best bars in America. The quirks drew him in; the people drew him back.

“I think although the tree and the alley location do add to this idea of community, there’s no doubt that Andy and Quinn really fostered this thing,” Oestreich said. “I’m not even sure that it was purposeful because that sort of thing is so ingrained into their personalities that I think it happened without them being purposeful about it.”

The bad old days

Fallon’s memories of Andyman’s Treehouse are fond but not so romantic.

“That place is steeped in nostalgia,” Fallon said. “When I left, I was ready to go… It was such a flawed situation.”

A successful bar doesn’t just happen; it takes a lot of hard work, and after Davis started raising kids, most of that work fell to Fallon. He was tired of owning a flood-prone bar in an alley with no signage and minimal parking. In 2008, Davis and Fallon sold Andyman’s Treehouse to Robert Palma, who shortened the name to The Treehouse. Palma’s son Phil, a musician and a Treehouse regular, would manage the bar.

As manager, Phil Palma remained a social presence at The Treehouse, but according to Peppercorn and Sowash, maintenance of the venue declined severely under his management. Over time, the building reverted to a dumpy state and the clientele diminished to a handful of regulars.

“That’s what happens when you don’t clean the bathrooms, when you don’t dust, when you don’t vacuum and when you let everything fall apart,” Peppercorn said. “Towards the end it became like a clubhouse, and I don’t think that’s how you run a bar.”

Behind the scenes, the picture was grimmer. The Ohio Division of Liquor Control lists investigations of bad checks and unpaid taxes dating to 2009, and Wear, who still owns the building, said that, by the time the bar closed in August 2011, the Palmas hadn’t paid rent for nearly a year.

“They just let the building go to shambles,” he said.

Wear was furious. He planned to evict the Palmas, but they beat him to the punch. In August, the same week that Peppercorn, Sowash and bartender Amber Hersch quit, The Treehouse shut down indefinitely.

“It was their decision. They just didn’t show up one day. They never called me; they just didn’t show up,” Wear said. “And then I heard through the grapevine that they were closing and going out of business. It didn’t surprise me because the crowds were much smaller, and I could never get a hold of anybody to tell me anything directly. They were very evasive. They avoided me.”

Phil Palma declined to discuss the situation but sent a statement over email: “I am glad I am no longer running the bar, I am more than content focusing on my music with Strangers in Daylight, and I wish Ryan all the best.”

Back to the future

When Haye heard about The Treehouse closing, he got on the phone with a lawyer immediately. Within a week, he was negotiating a new lease with Wear. Since then, Haye, contractor Bob Murphy and a legion of volunteers have been tearing the place apart and reassembling it. They removed the carpet, upgraded and switched the men’s and women’s restrooms and replaced the old L-shaped bar with a new concrete bar top.

The bar will finally serve draft beer, and Stiffler, who spent the last three years managing Garage Bar in the Arena District, is assembling a lineup of local beers and liquors plus numerous imports. The name is changing to Tree Bar to avoid trademark concerns with the Palmas and to indicate the new ownership.

The first order of business, though, was cutting down the tree; the stump will soon become a memorial for Davis, who drowned last year while vacationing with his family. Removing the signature silver maple might seem like sacrilege, but it was dying, and Haye worried it might collapse on the bar.

“That tree, it’s had to sit through some of the worst music too. It deserves a break,” Peppercorn said. “That may be why people come out the first time, but I don’t think it’s why people come the second time.”

The tree might not come back, but the familiar faces will. Haye persuaded key figures like Fallon, Peppercorn and Sowash to return. The goal is to restore The Tree Bar to its glory days, and Haye seems like the man for the job. Everyone involved vouched for Haye’s professionalism and respect for the bar’s history.

Business as usual won’t resume until January, but the public gets its first glimpse of the new regime next Friday — Haye’s 39th birthday — when Tree Bar hosts Two Cow Garage, Ghost Shirt, The Kyle Sowashes, Speed Governor and Low Men. The bar will also be open New Year’s Eve with a DJ set by Adam Scoppa. Among the returning staff, excitement is palpable.

“This should be a place that if you had your first kiss with your future wife [here] you wouldn’t be embarrassed about it,” Peppercorn said. “I think Ryan’s going to return it to that.”