Route 66 Cafe To Reopen After Fire
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | May 20, 2009
A year ago today, a fire broke out in a popular Route 66 diner, the Rock Cafe, in Stroud, Okla.
The blaze, its cause still undetermined, destroyed all but the stone walls of the 1936 building. Most regulars assumed that the fire spelled the end for the Rock Cafe. But owner Dawn Welch, who has spent the past year rebuilding the diner, says it was just the beginning.
"I could have walked away and kept half the insurance money, but I never even considered it, basically because I'm crazy," Welch says. "I didn't [rebuild] because I had to, I did it because I loved it; it provided a great life for me and my kids—not in terms of money, but atmosphere. I loved seeing the people who came through there."
Although the Rock Cafe's reconstruction is only 90 percent complete, Welch will open its doors on Friday for beignets, tea, and tours. Welch says the soft opening on the anniversary of the fire is important: "We want to make sure everyone feels real comfortable with where we're at [in rebuilding], and let them start signing the walls."
The National Register-listed eatery will officially reopen next month, looking much as it did in the 1930s. David Burke, Welch's historic preservation architect, oversaw the project.
"It's kind of like doing detective work," Burke says. "There were ghost marks and telltale signs that did survive."
Burke remodeled the restaurant to accommodate more guests and reinforced and insulated its stone walls, which were built from rocks that workers excavated to build Route 66. Welch also plans to replicate a neon sign, lost decades ago, that used to hang over the front door.
Burke's job would have been a lot tougher if not for a grant Welch won in 2001 from the National Park Service's Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program: that grant required thorough photographic documentation of the building before and after remodeling. Those images came in handy after the 2008 fire, Burke says. (Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southwest Office gave a grant of $4,000 to the Rock Cafe.)
Now that the Rock Cafe is almost rebuilt, Welch says she's in shock. "I can't believe it. It's almost as surreal as watching the fire," says Welch, who recently completed a cookbook that will be published by Rodale Press this fall. "I'm excited to get back to my normal life," she says.
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