After the pandemic disrupted a thriving scene at Henrietta Hudson, a Manhattan-based “queer human space built by lesbians,” owner Lisa Cannistraci knew she faced a daunting task to reopen — and she wanted to make sure she did it right.
Henrietta Hudson resisted the urge to partially reopen and the bar has remained completely closed throughout the duration of the pandemic. Cannistraci decided to use that time to renovate the place just in time for the queer watering hole’s soft reopening on May 1 and a grand reopening in mid-May.
“It was such a big, heavy lift,” Cannistraci, who uses “they” and “she” pronouns, said as they sat in a workspace near the bar. “We were at the top of our game in 2019. The 12 hours a week when it was the busiest — it’s gone. Essentially, I’m building a business from scratch.”
A small team has been working behind the scenes to prepare for the reopening at the bar, which is at 438 Hudson Street in Manhattan’s West Village. Known for its packed dance parties, Henrietta Hudson is returning as a cafe lounge with a bright, mid-century design and Palm Springs-esque decor. Visitors can expect a robust line of small bites, an espresso bar, and even more cocktails than before. Plus, pods are stationed outside for outdoor dining.
“Every square inch has changed in a decorative way,” Cannistraci said. “I’m glad that I made the decision not to kind-of open. It gave me time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going.”
An iconic, shimmering disco ball will still greet new patrons, but there will also be lounge chairs, a kitchen in the back of the bar, and some greenery to complement the upscale vibe, according to design concepts of the space shared with Gay City News.
“We’re 30 now; we want to sit down a little bit,” said Molly Adams, the bar’s digital director. “It allows us to open to a broader clientele.”
While the renovation was motivated in part by the pandemic, it was already on the to-do list. Like clockwork every seven years, the bar goes through a rebirth, with the most recent revamp being in 2013.
“It wasn’t on my calendar, but it was a notion that I need to give more,” Cannistraci said. “We need to listen to what people want.”
Visitors must make reservations for now, and due to social distancing guidelines, dancing will not immediately resume.
During the long break, the bar developed online programming on its social media pages to create spaces where LGBTQ advocates can discuss trans healthcare, healthy relationships with partners, and safe nightlife spaces for queer people. Diversity remains a key element at the bar heading into a new era.
“It’s been about learning and honoring our history and carrying it into the future,” Adams said. “It’s about still serving the community in a way that is valuable, inclusive, and forward-thinking.”
Cannistraci drew inspiration for the renovation from her late parents, who died during the pandemic. They were very supportive of her LGBTQ identity and her mother co-founded a PFLAG chapter on Staten Island.
“The silver lining was that I got to spend a lot of time with them,” Cannistraci said. “That was the blessing. My mother loved Henrietta Hudson, as did my father. Whenever my mom traveled, she always wore a Henrietta Hudson T-shirt because she knew it would spark conversation.”
It is still too early to know what the venue’s plans are for Pride, but the staffers said Henrietta Hudson’s offerings would depend on COVID-19 guidelines — which are becoming more relaxed as more New Yorkers get vaccinated.
Henrietta Hudson is part of the Lesbian Bars Project, which is a campaign to save and raise awareness of LGBTQ bars catered to women. The establishment remains one of the longest-running lesbian bars in the city, ahead of Cubbyhole in the West Village and Ginger’s Bar in Brooklyn.
While lesbian bars face a precarious future, Cannistraci is continuing to push forward — and not even a year-long hiatus is slowing her down.
“Surviving 30 years to me wasn’t a conscious decision,” she said. “You get up in the morning, you put one shoe on at a time, and you start your day, and then the day is over and the bar is still open.”
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