Port Huron’s historic Brass Rail Bar reopens, "Christmas in July" to return

A Tom and Jerry in July? It’s coming. 

From July 21-23, the iconic Brass Rail Bar in downtown Port Huron will serve Christmas cheer and Tom and Jerrys, their traditional seasonal specialty.

The “Christmas in July” event is part of a package of activities that new owners husband and wife, Jarrett Tweedie and Debra Palazzolo, plan for the iconic Port Huron landmark.

A photo of the Brass Rail Bar's original owner, Helen David, holding the bar's iconic Tom and Jerry hangs on the wall.The original owner, Helen David, first opened the Brass Rail Bar at 410 Huron Ave. in 1937. Soon after, the meringue-on-top cocktail known as Tom and Jerry made its debut, and a star was born.

Satisfying a sweet tooth may be the building’s calling. In the 1930s, David’s parents, Lebanese immigrants Tony and Elizabeth Hibye, owned and operated Hibye’s Ice Cream Parlor offering not only ice cream but candy and fruits as well.

With the coming of the Great Depression of 1939,  the family changed the parlor from sweets to suds, staying a success for over 80 years, even surviving David’s death in 2006.

David’s cousin, Maroun Abou-Ghanem, took possession of the bar, but it closed in March 2020 during the pandemic. After Abou-Ghanem’s death in 2021, the Brass Rail Bar was put up for sale.

Tweedie and Palazzolo came across the listing for the Brass Rail Bar in June 2021 while searching for commercial properties. They say they were intrigued by the opportunity to buy a historic business.

 “We both came here often, loved its history, and didn’t want to see it just sit,” Tweedie says.

The couple worked with city officials to transfer ownership of the liquor license and to include the Brass Rail Bar in the city’s downtown social district. After finalizing the purchase on Nov. 18, 2022, the business officially reopened just a few weeks later on Dec. 7.  

A grand opening was held on Feb. 8, 2023, with Port Huron Mayor Pauline Repp presenting a certificate of appreciation and attended by Port Huron Chamber of Commerce officials.

As part of the charm of the Brass Rail Bar, numerous stained glass artworks are original to the establishment.As far as changes for the iconic bar, patrons will still sit in the red-and-black booths and red chairs. Seasonal decorations – be it many colored Christmas lights or St. Patrick’s Day green – still hang from the walls and the bar.

The bar itself is a classic piece of Italian artwork that has a vibrant history of its own.

In 1981, the floor behind the bar began to sag. The huge piece of woodwork - thirteen feet, two inches tall by sixteen feet, eight inches wide - had to be moved.

But the upper portion of the bar with the cornice was hidden under the metal ceiling and had not been seen for 25 years. Eventually, the bar was dismantled into three sections and stored while Helen wondered what to do with it.

Deciding she was tired of painting it, Helen had the woodwork restored to its original luster. A team of artists stripped and refinished the wood, using steel wool, paint strippers, and dental tools to dig out the paint from the intricate scrollwork.

Behind the bar are a few features original to the establishment such as the Tiffany lights and mahogany wood centerpiece depicting the goddess of wisdom (right) and the goddess of knowledge.

Twenty-five coats of paint were removed from the mahogany bar. Five coats of lacquer were later applied to the wood, the whole process being completed in seven weeks.

One of the two female figures on the side of the bar is the goddess of wisdom; the other figure is the goddess of knowledge. The two-square mirrors are roughly seven feet by seven feet, joined in the center of the bar by a brass and Tiffany light fixture.

The handblown Tiffany lamps are pink, yellow, and apricot. The colors of the original stained glass were duplicated in custom-made panels to fit in the archway.

Palazzolo and Tweedie recently received grant money for maintenance and possible replacement of the second-story windows from the Michigan Historical Society. 
Long-time patrons will appreciate the old and familiar at the Brass Rail Bar, but new activities have been well received, Tweedie says.  

A sign displaying daily specials greets guests coming through the back entrance of the Brass Rail Bar.

“We have Euchre night on Tuesdays,” Tweedie says. “Wednesdays are trivia night. Thursday is live music, and Saturdays we have charcuterie boards and Bloody Marys. Business has been really good.”

Keeping the good times rolling has become a family affair. Tweedie and Palazzolo’s son, Jason Collins, works evenings at the business and his son Shane McNeil also helps behind the bar.
An aging neon sign hangs over the rear entrance of the Brass Rail Bar.
“I used to work at a factory and kept to myself,” McNeil says. “Now I meet a lot of new people and hear their stories. I’ve come out of my shell.”

Collins smiled broadly at his son’s comment.

“He’s really grown since working here,” Collins says.

The Tom and Jerrys and historic décor bring in a variety of people.

“We’ve had people drive 12 hours just to get here for a Tom and Jerry,” Collins says. “From Canada, Ohio, Massachusetts — wherever.”

With Port Huron being a hockey town, the historic pictures of hockey players and games now on multiple televisions was part of the bar’s appeal to Tweedie.

The Yale High School graduate says he “didn’t want to see the bar sit empty.”

The Brass Rail Bar offers plenty of seating with the iconic red-and-black booths throughout the establishment.

“I used to come in all the time for hockey and the history,” Tweedie says. “When the bar closed, one guy took some of his personal hockey pictures down. Now that we’re open again, he asked to put them back up.”

Patron and Port Huron resident, Jeff Davis, echoed the impact of hockey.

“I’m a Prowlers season ticket holder and would always come in for a drink or two before the game,” Davis says. “I was kind of bummed when the bar first closed. Been coming here for 30-plus years.”

When the bar reopened on a Wednesday, Davis says he was back in the Rail on Friday. 

“It’s history here, and there’s a home feel to the place.”

As a popular Christmas song goes: There’s no place like home for the holiday, even when it’s in July.
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Read more articles by John Lusk.

John Lusk taught composition and journalism at St. Clair County Community College level for over 30 years. Serving the Port Huron community and practicing the writing craft is his current focus. You may reach him at sutherlandforever@gmail.com.