Route 66 News

Riviera Roadhouse destroyed by fire

The historic Riviera Roadhouse on Route 66 in Gardner, Ill., was destroyed by fire Tuesday night and is still burning, according to an e-mail I received from the editor of The Braidwood Journal.

The historic Route 66 restaurant and lounge was owned and operated for decades by Bob and Peggy Kraft until the two retired in late 2008.

Bob Keller briefly reopened the restaurant in late 2009, but had a long and protracted spat with local officials over, ironically, fire-safety issues.

More details as they come …

UPDATE: Marney Simon, editor of the Journal, said by phone that the fire started about 7 p.m. and multiple departments were still fighting the blaze as of 9:30 p.m.

The restaurant had been closed “for a while,” she said, amid the fire-safety disputes.

Keller had grown so combative that he refused to allow member of the Illinois Route 66 Association on the property to perform regular maintenance on the Streetcar Diner, a 100-year-old horse-drawn streetcar that was later converted into a diner. The diner’s fate is unknown at this time.

Simon said the Free Press Advocate would have updates on its website and Facebook page when more details become available.

UPDATE2: Here’s a photo from the fire scene, courtesy of the Free Press Advocate. More fire photos can be seen at the newspaper’s Facebook page here.

UPDATE3: Route 66 advocate and preservationist John Weiss told me by phone Tuesday night that the Streetcar Diner on the property was safe, for now. The diner, he said, was situated about 150 feet from the Riviera building.

He said the Illinois Route 66 Association would move the diner to the property that also contains the two-cell jail in Gardner that was built in 1906.

Weiss, who was at the scene earlier in the evening, said firefighters were having trouble with the blaze because there are no nearby fire hydrants. All water to combat the blaze was being hauled to the scene by tanker trucks. He said arson investigators are at the scene.

“It’s just a sad day to see an icon such as this slip away,” Weiss said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Weiss said he especially felt bad for Bob and Peggy Kraft, who spent much of their lives running the business.

UPDATE4: A bit of history about the Riviera … it was built in 1928. More from the Road Wanderer:

James Girot, a South Wilmington businessman, moved buildings from Gardner and South Wilmington and put them all together to form the Riviera structure as it stands today. The Riviera is a true roadhouse! Once movie legends Gene Kelly and Tom Mix regularly stopped here. This was a favorite haunt of Al Capone and was known as a gangster hangout too. Slot machines and booze were offered to the discrete customer during prohibition. In fact, there’s a freezer in the basement with a heavy iron door that was used to hide booze and gambling machines in case of a raid.

UPDATE5: The Free Press Advocate posted a slide show on its home page, plus a story.

UPDATE6: A Chicago Breaking News Center report Wednesday morning labeled the fire as highly suspicious.

A commentary by Michael Ciric of Chicago Now about the fire.

Here’s the Associated Press version of the story.

Here’s the Joliet Herald News version of the story.

UPDATE7: The Morris Daily Herald has some interesting nuggets sprinkled into its story:

Authorities were not saying earlier today if arson was involved.

However, investigators were checking the smoking embers this morning, and Gardner Fire Chief Randy Wilkey said the site is currently being treated as a crime scene.

The report said that restaurant operator Bob Keller had backed out of the lease with building owners Bob and Peggy Kraft some time ago. It had been vacant for two months.

Also, some of the fire departments were delayed in their response to the scene because of miscommunication by dispatchers. However, the report said the building was already 50 percent involved with flames when the first firefighters arrived. So, even in a best-case scenario, saving the Riviera still would have been a lost cause.