It always takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust when you walk into McGovern's Tavern in Newark, a downtown fixture since 1936.
But this Friday afternoon, there were two immediate sights that demonstrated something was different.
First, most of the photos, portraits, and articles that cover the bar's walls were removed, the relics of decades of history gone.
Second, you could actually see that the walls were stripped bare because the green metal front door was propped open, the sunlight streaming in, as workers removed anything else not nailed down.
"There's a breath of fresh air coming into Newark. We're really getting into the renaissance now," said co-owner Sean McGovern amidst packed partygoers marking the temporary closing of the bar while major renovations take place over the summer. "This is the beginning of something great that's going to be happening the next 40 to 50 years. We want to capture that and grab what's coming in."
What's coming in during the coming months adds several new dimensions to what has been a bar and a back room in one building for more than eight decades. The bar and restaurant are planned to take over two buildings next door on New Street to the corner of Washington Street. The kitchen will be enlarged, and the expanded space will include an additional dining room.
McGovern's will not only expand horizontally, but vertically. Two floors will be built on top of the current bar, along with one floor on top of the building next to it. These new floors will have six new apartments, plus a law firm.
These major changes are occurring in a place beloved because nothing changes.
McGovern's sits at the center of Newark's social whirlpool, where construction workers, lawyers, students, firefighters, poets, priests, and politicians all swirl together. Like a traditional Irish pub, the bar has no television expect for special occasions. As a result, every entry past the green door is a special occasion because all of these strata of society are compelled to talk to each other.
Many customers had something to say about the way McGovern's is, and what it will be.
"It's a great place to clear your head from whatever is going on outside," said Mike O'Connor, a construction worker from Bergen County, resting his hard hat on the bar as he paused from building projects at nearby Rutgers and NJIT. "I'll guess I'll have to meditate in my car for a while. We'll see."
"Makes the rest of my afternoon a little easier," said Dave O'Hara, an ironworker from South Jersey. "Everyone will get used to it once it's redone."
When asked what he will do during the summer-long bar renovation, O'Hara, a big strong man, uttered one little word.
"Cry," he said.
John Sheridan, an Englishman abroad who teaches chemistry at Rutgers-Newark, reflected on McGovern's unique alchemy.
"I'm a chemist. I'm not a sociologist or anthropologist," Sheridan said, who has been coming to the bar since 1987. "But this is the type of place that I grew up with back home. I could walk into a bar and feel comfortable, and this is like that."
Kevin Darcy didn't walk into the bar when came for the first time - he was carried in as a one-year old.
"I was here in the late 1980s, when downtown Newark was not a good place to work," said Darcy, an electrician who is related to McGovern's owners. "It's better and better every year. I was raised around here, and I'm proud to come back to Newark."
Some newer Newark residents note that even though downtown Newark's change is positive, the transformation of McGovern's, a longtime civic anchor, won't come easy.
"As you're living through change, it's horrible. You're changing things you like, and it's home," said Handel Destinvil, a recent Rutgers Law School graduate. "But people come back. They always do."
It should be distinctly noted that the original bar at McGovern's won't change. The walls will once again be covered with markers of its history. Some of that history will be heightened. The murals on all four wooden walls of the bar—including one showing Robert Treat, the founder of Newark, landing on the banks of the Passaic River in the late 17th Century—will have their color restored.
But one of the main reasons people will come back to McGovern's in September won't be wood. It is because of Bill Scully, an Irish immigrant and longtime bartender, who is the living body and soul of the place.
Scully knows that as much meaning McGovern's holds for several generations, it can't be trapped in amber.
"Change is good at this time, because downtown Newark is becoming a vibrant community," Scully said. "It's time for us to keep up with the times. McGovern's will survive anything, and everything."