Famed New Jersey clam joint losing its shell

HOBOKEN, N.J. — For more than a century, the Clam Broth House has been nothing short of an icon in this waterfront city.

Marlon Brando was said to have dined there while filming "On the Waterfront." Frank Sinatra's mother was a regular. Woodrow Wilson bid farewell to troops from the balcony as they shipped off to World War I, and he greeted them when they came home.

But the building is about to add a final, sorrowful chapter to its colorful history: the wrecking ball.

The Clam Broth House has been closed since May 2003, when cracks and bulges in its brick facade prompted city officials to condemn the property. A judge recently lifted an order blocking the building's demolition, and officials say it could be razed this month.

"It's one of those places that generations remember," said Bob Foster, director of the Hoboken Historical Museum. "I remember once talking to Pete Seeger, the folk singer, and he told me he used to take his wife there to get seafood."

In a mile-square city as packed with lore as it is with New York commuters, the Clam Broth House has been one of Hoboken's most beloved institutions since it opened in 1899, two blocks from the Hudson River waterfront.

Its hand-shaped, neon sign perched above the corner of Newark and Hudson streets literally pointed the way for generations of seafood lovers. Its shifting clientele reflected Hoboken's evolution from a blue-collar shipping port to a high-rent bedroom community and parking-starved nightspot for 20-somethings.

Although Hoboken's waterfront now is lined with luxury apartments, it long had been dominated by shipyards, and the Clam Broth House catered to the longshoremen chronicled in the 1954 film "On the Waterfront" starring Brando.

Dolly Sinatra, a local celebrity herself as the mother of Hoboken's most famous son, was a regular at the Marlin Room, one of several lounges and dining rooms within the sprawling Clam Broth House.

"Up until the 1970s, women weren't allowed to drink at the bar," recalled Fred Bado, 60, a Hoboken native and the city's economic development director. "It was a big to-do during that feminist movement back then."

De De Rendaci fondly recalls working as a waitress there during the 1960s and '70s.

"Oh, my God, it was five dining rooms and lines all the way around the corner," said Rendaci, who now owns and tends bar at the Wilton House, just up Newark Street. "There was sawdust on the floor, and everybody would throw their clam shells on the floor. And then there was a big bucket of clam broth, like a coffee urn with a spigot, and everybody would have clam broth from the steamers that they made."

But fame could not keep it from closing. Tenants in apartments above the restaurant, which sits at the base of four 19th-century buildings, complained about buckling walls. The city eventually determined that the buildings would have to be demolished, but the restaurant's owners persuaded a judge to temporarily block the demolition in March.

Businessmen Michael Acciardi and Reinaldo Becerra, who own the Clam Broth House name and operation but not the property, sued the property owner, alleging the owner allowed the buildings to deteriorate. Harold Cummins, a lawyer for Acciardi and Becerra, said his clients have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars due to the deterioration that led to the restaurant's closing.

John Curley, a lawyer for property owners Arthur and Christina Peleaz, said Acciardi and Becerra damaged the property by installing a concrete floor improperly.

The suit is pending, even though the order blocking demolition has been lifted.

Curley said the site will be redeveloped, possibly as a new Clam Broth House with the original, neon sign. Because the structure is within a historic district, any redevelopment must be consistent with its current scheme.