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From the Archives: The legend of Senior Bar

| Monday, February 20, 2023

Diane Park | The Observer

Every weekend, Notre Dame students flock to spots like Newf’s and Olf’s to find the classic college experience of alcohol-fueled fellowship and festivity. But in the not-too-distant past, you didn’t have to leave the familiar confines of campus to find a quintessential college bar. From 1968 to 2003, “Senior Bar” was a legitimate, self-supporting and largely student-run establishment with various locations, most notably in a building south of Notre Dame Stadium that is still relevant today. Senior Bar served as a central hub of campus life for 35 years before the location was turned into Legends restaurant, which recently reopened after a short pandemic closure. 

This week, From the Archives traces the history of Senior Bar, from its student-led establishment, to its ever-changing location, to its second life as Legends. Though Senior Bar has been gone for two decades, memories of the bar and the vibrant social life it facilitated live on in legends — both figurative and literal.

The establishment of Senior Bar

Oct. 26, 1967 | Observer Staff | Oct. 29, 1968 | Observer Staff | Jan. 13, 1969 | Observer Staff | April 1, 1969 | Observer Staff | Researched by Lilyann Gardner

In 1967, members of the Notre Dame senior class made a bold proposition to the University’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board.

The students asked permission to purchase a “private club license,” with the hopes of opening an establishment solely owned and operated by themselves. The seniors hoped to bring in a greater net profit for the class by working in conjunction with the local Flamingo Restaurant. 

The University acknowledged the benefits of a Senior Bar for the community and gave the go-ahead, but not before putting a few stipulations in place. 

“The ABC has told the Class that no ladies under 21 will be permitted in the Bar. Besides, there is not supposed to be any dancing and all persons must be seated while drinking,” The Observer reported. 

The rules were agreed upon and the seniors worked together to create a space with affordable drink prices, happy hours and live entertainment. 

The Senior Bar opened on Jan. 1, 1968, and students were overjoyed. But the location of the bar remained a problem during its early months. 

Less than a year after its opening, the Senior Class split ways with Flamingo Restaurant and closed what they called “Club 69” after a confrontation involving some of the local youth fighting with knives.  

Senior class president Dave Witt (‘69) and senior bar manager Gordon Beeler (‘69) approached faculty members with a request to relocate Senior Bar to the dormant faculty club south of the stadium. This relocation was discussed for months prior to the knife fight, but the request was initially ignored by the University. 

“Too many times our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” Witt wrote in an Observer article. “And now, once again, the senior class must ask itself, ‘Is anybody listening?’”

Observer archives, Jan. 13, 1969.
The old McNamara House, located south of Notre Dame Stadium next to the current Legends location, became the first permanent home for Senior Bar on campus in 1969.

Witt’s question finally received an answer in January 1969 when the University agreed to allow the students to use the old faculty club, known as McNamara House, as an Alumni Club run by the Alumni Association rather than a Senior Bar. 

All parties agreed, and a few weeks later the improved Alumni Club opened to seniors and graduate students, who paid three dollars semiannually for an Alumni Club membership. The quality of the establishment justified the introduction of an entrance fee for many. 

“The building has a capacity of several hundred and was recently remodeled,” The Observer reported. “The first floor includes a completely equipped bar, a pool room and a date room with a large fireplace and an area reserved for dancing. The second floor contains another large date room, a card playing room and a color television set.” 

All of these new amenities — in addition to free parking and proximity to campus — made the Alumni Club a success for the class of 1969 and ultimately led the class of 1970 to keep their Senior Bar at the same location. However, discontent with the McNamara House would grow in years to come and lead to ongoing debates over the future of Senior Bar.

A new Senior Bar

Sept. 14, 1981 | Megan Boyle & Mike Lepre | Feb. 2, 1982 | Vic Sciulli | Sept. 10, 1982 | Ryan Van Berkmoes | Researched By Cade Czarnecki

In the early 1980s, sentiments toward the bar began to shift. No longer enamored by just having a bar, many complained about the cramped conditions in the Alumni Club and the makeshift structure that was lovingly called a bar — the building, after all, was initially a house.

Many people came to bat for both sides of the issue. While Senior Bar purists believed that the dingy structure had a certain charm that could not be replicated elsewhere, others cited safety precautions and mismanagement as necessary reasons for the University to play a role in constructing a new bar.

Observer archives, Sept. 10, 1982
Booths inside the new Senior Bar building, now home to Legends restaurant.

A new structure was eventually built adjacent to the old Alumni House. Despite efforts to keep the bar independent of University oversight, Notre Dame’s administration had a hand in much of the construction. The new bar was said to be “entirely self-supporting [but] pay[ed] rent to the University.”

Further, while the new bar was initially permitted to be run exclusively by student managers, by the early 1990s, the bar had its first “full-time adult general manager.”

The new bar also had one further modification: anyone could come on Sundays. The University stipulated that students of all ages — freshmen through seniors — could come to the bar on Sundays and order non-alcoholic drinks.

Observer archives, Sept. 10, 1982
Arcade games and pool tables inside the new Senior Bar, which was strictly 21 and over for most of the week but open to all students on Sundays.

While this was the case on Sundays, the rest of the week was not. The bar and the University made great efforts to reiterate that the new establishment was strictly 21-plus the rest of the week, threatening $100 fines to those found in the bar who were not of drinking age.

The new bar received mixed reviews. While the roughly 7,000-square foot increase in space was a welcome change for all patrons, many grumbled that the atmosphere was not the same because of the University’s involvement. Still, the new bar continued to be a hub of social life.

Senior Bar’s second life as Legends

Aug. 29, 2003 | Sheila Flynn | Jan. 21, 2004 | Katie Laird | Aug. 30, 2004 | Tom Tiberio | Sept. 2, 2004 | Travis Douville | Researched by Avery Polking

After 35 years as a student-run hub on campus, Senior Bar was turned into Legends in 2003. The building south of Notre Dame Stadium was renovated over the summer for Legends’ grand opening on Aug. 30, 2003, just in time for the new school year.

In its infancy, Legends boasted many impressive amenities, emulating the bar that was open for decades already. This including a dual-sectioned space that first featured an Ale House, along with restaurant sections and plenty of entertainment space. 

In the pub area, 22 beers were kept on tap alongside 64 bottled choices and four “Legends own” craft brews by local Indiana breweries made specifically for the restaurant. $200,000 worth of lighting and sound equipment also made the ambitious musical entertainment dreams of program coordinator Jonathan Jorisson (‘02) come true. 

Observer archives, Aug. 29, 2003
The Legends bar at its opening in 2003.

Live shows were put on every weekend, followed by DJ performances until 4 a.m. Other installations like the concessions area, fog machine, video and bar games and the restaurant ensured that Legends became and remained a prime social spot for students of the tri-campus community. 

In contrast to today, Legends was truly a student bar in the early 2000s — Domer Dollars were accepted as payment at the restaurant, and there was no cover charge for any Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s or Holy Cross student. A dorm attendance competition was also held opening night, putting the “college” into college bar.

But being on campus, Legends enforced strict policies to ensure only legal alcohol consumption by its patrons. The zero tolerance underage drinking policy warranted ID checks, wristbands and brightly colored cups for alcohol. 

Observer archives, Aug. 29, 2003
Inside the new Legends restaurant.

But alcohol doesn’t seem to have been the main event. Perhaps the most legendary part of Legends’ golden years was the bar’s commitment to entertainment, compelling Jorisson to call it “the premiere venue for live music in South Bend.” The facts speak for themselves: outside of campus bands and professional comedians, Legends attracted musical performances from groups out of Chicago, New York and Nashville, and performance slots were extremely hard to come by.

The atmosphere of Legends at its inception was attributed to and cultivated by the students — of legal drinking age, of course. In fact, when the bar started to make changes to its menu — including increasing prices and discontinuing beer pitchers — students were indignant. It was after all, a college bar, with no room for fancy (and expensive) breaks from normalcy.

Ultimately, Senior Bar found second life as a restaurant and has become a true campus institution: one of college culture, tradition and of course, legend.

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