On the evening of May 18th, 2001, one of the cornerstones of Speakeasy’s ideology, community, and company culture was — quite literally — burned to the ground.
Earlier that year, the cafe’s long-time neighbor, the 211 Club, had closed down in the face of a changing neighborhood, increased development and change in community culture. While creative in layout and upgrades, the network offices at 2222 had been bursting at the seams, and this was an opportunity for Speakeasy to expand its office space within the neighborhood.
Over the ensuing months, the team worked tirelessly to transform the old pool hall into a call center that would house Speakeasy’s growing sales and support crew. On the fateful day of the fire, they’d finished applying a protective coat of polyurethane to the freshly sanded wood floors, then left it to dry over night so that they could add another layer the next day.
That evening, while the cafe hosted a performance in the back room and the community met for coffee, drinks and conversation, the upstairs caught fire. The cafe’s crew calmly evacuated the building, thinking that it would be a quick and easy resolution; they could not have predicted that the fire would rage and engulf the entire upstairs of the building — and that the entire building would be eventually irreparably damaged by the water used to extinguish the blaze.
Eventually ruled an accident — an unfortunate combination of the building’s old wiring and the fumes of the polyurethane — the fire caused such extreme damage to a building that was nearly a century old, it was not recoverable.
In what seemed simultaneously like a moment and an eternity, the initial inspiration for Speakeasy — a center promoting art, community, and access to technology — was gone. With the heart of its original mission on the line, Speakeasy doubled-down on its commitment to its original ideology by promoting art, building community, and providing more access to technology through its burgeoning business as an independent broadband service provider.
Neighborhood hub lost in fire: Speakeasy much more than a cafe
Sunday, May 20, 2001
By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter
For years, Belltown’s Speakeasy Cafe had been a hub of the community.
Yesterday, the community came to it again. Artists who had shown work there and neighbors who had spent dozens of coffee-drinking hours at the cafe gazed at the blackened, burned-out building and offered the cafe owners support.
Friday evening, a fire gutted the cafe that had been a sort of living room for the Belltown neighborhood on the north end of downtown Seattle. The Speakeasy, at Second Avenue and Bell Street, had brought together neighborhood residents, tech workers, artists, poets and musicians, creating a civic and artistic hub and a virtual community through its pioneering Internet cafe and Internet services.
“It’s a horrible, horrible loss,” said Constance Dorgan, manager of the Crocodile Cafe down the street. “It was a central meeting place for the neighborhood.”
The fire broke out about 11 p.m. Friday, with 30 fire units and 60 firefighters battling the two-alarm blaze, some of them for up to 45 minutes. The fire also damaged the Marvin Gardens Inn east of the Speakeasy. One unit at Marvin Gardens remained off-limits yesterday, while the other residents were allowed to return to their homes, said Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Sue Stangl. No one was injured.
Yesterday, the Fire Department had not determined a cause of the fire. Nor did it have damage estimates. The building appeared to be structurally sound and can probably be repaired, Stangl said.
The fire apparently started on the southwest corner of the second floor of the building that housed the cafe, Stangl said. That floor, which formerly housed the 211 Club pool hall and was being renovated to accommodate the Speakeasy’s technical-support staff, suffered fire damage. The first floor, housing the cafe, sustained mainly water damage, Stangl said.
Speakeasy Network, an Internet-service provider housed in a separate building across the street, will continue providing service, said Mike Apgar, who co-owns both the cafe and the separate Speakeasy Network.
But Apgar, who leases the cafe space and has insurance on the Speakeasy, hasn’t decided about the cafe’s future. In 1999, he said he was thinking of closing the cafe to focus on Internet-related enterprises. (The owner of the building declined to comment yesterday.)
From the opening of the cafe in 1995, Apgar and his wife, co-owner Gretchen Apgar, had wanted to create a community. They wanted more than just a cafe, and when they found out about the Internet, it seemed like a good blend.
Personal computers were still relatively expensive, and few people had Internet access. They started the Speakeasy Cafe with 10 text-only computer terminals and eight graphics-capable terminals.
But by 1998, with more people connected to the Net, the Speakeasy founders increasingly focused on providing Internet services to homes and businesses. They created Speakeasy Network as a separate company.
Today, the network is a national Internet service provider for “tens of thousands” of customers (the Apgars declined to give an exact figure) and generates about 99 percent of the Apgars’ business revenue. About 135 employees work for Speakeasy Network. Only about 10 work for the cafe.
From the beginning, the Speakeasy Cafe made sure artists would be part of the mix.
“I wouldn’t go to just an Internet cafe,” said Tina LaPadula, who founded the Speakeasy Cafe’s art gallery. “We thought, hopefully, having art, film and theater in the space would make more people hang out there.”
Regular shows were scheduled in the cafe’s back room, including film and video screenings, theater and dance performances, and poetry readings.
“It was a much-needed venue for the arts,” said Joel Bachar, curator of Independent Exposure, a monthly screening of international independent short films. “It gave me a home base, it launched my career and helped build an independent film community here.”
The cafe occupied a niche as a place for artists to try new things at little financial risk. For about 20 to 25 percent of the door revenue, the Speakeasy would provide space for actors, playwrights, dancers.
It also gave artists a space to show their works. Almost every show at the cafe has resulted in sales, with the artists receiving about 75 percent of the proceeds, LaPadula said. Typically, established art galleries get about 50 percent of sales proceeds.
From about 1995 to 1998, it was also a hub for live, alternative music and Northwest jazz, with local names such Greta Matassa and Wayne Horvitz performing in the front room, along with other musicians often working on new or experimental pieces.
Especially in the early days, it wasn’t unusual to find a mix of corporate workers having coffee up front, senior citizens learning to surf the Web, avante garde artists in the back and Belltown hipsters milling around, said David Russell, founding arts director for the cafe.
“Whatever the damage,” said Apgar “it’s certainly the end of a chapter for the Speakeasy.”
Speakeasy Café fire wipes out a Belltown cultural hub
By LEWIS KAMB, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Published 10:00 pm, Monday, May 21, 2001
For years, Jim Porter aspired to see his paintings on the walls of Seattle’s Speakeasy Cafe — a cherished venue for up-and-coming and thriving artists alike.
Porter’s big break came last month, when 14 of his acrylic paintings — colorful, near-realism renditions that each took months to create — were chosen to brighten the pioneering Internet cafe, a Belltown cultural hub.
“I had wanted to show there for years,” the 31-year-old Tacoma native said yesterday. “I recognized it as one of the great places in Seattle to display your art, other than the galleries or museums.”
But Friday night, Porter’s aspirations — along with a good portion of the two-story brick warehouse that housed the cafe — went up in smoke.
Yesterday, Seattle Fire Department investigators determined why.
The late-night, two-alarm blaze that gutted part of the building at Second Avenue and Bell Street was an accident sparked by an overheated electric cord in a second-floor bathroom, investigators said.
Damage to the old building that housed the Speakeasy Cafe was estimated at $750,000. Smoke and fire damage to the building’s contents, ranging from computer equipment to works of art, totals $150,000 more, fire Lt. Sue Stangl said yesterday.
Fifty people were inside the building at the time of the blaze but there were no injuries. The fire started in the southwest corner of the second floor, an area under renovation that had formerly housed the 211 Club billiards hall. It closed down last year on Christmas Eve.
(Note: When originally published, this article incorrectly stated the building’s occupancy at the time of the fire. This version has been corrected.)
Since then, Speakeasy’s owners have been renovating the space directly above the cafe into a new call center to accommodate customers of the business’s growing Internet services.
“They were doing some urethane finishing on the floor … and (that) could explain the rapid spread of the fire,” Stangl said.
Exposed wood walls that hadn’t yet been fitted with wallboard probably helped fuel the blaze, Stangl added.
The 11 p.m. fire spread so quickly that it was wildly out of control by the time firefighters arrived, even though the nearest station is just two blocks away.
The fire exploded out of the Speakeasy’s second-floor windows and spread to Marvin Gardens Inn, an apartment complex located across an alley to the east. Apartment managers were still assessing fire and smoke damage to about 30 units yesterday, Marvin Gardens general manager Jeff Moen said.
Kat Oak, a spokeswoman for Speakeasy Network, said it is still unclear whether the building will be restored and the cafe will return.
“It’s really contingent on the building owners,” she said. “So everything is still up in the air.”
The owners could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Founded in 1995, Speakeasy Cafe quickly became a popular hangout for residents, tech workers, musicians and artists as Belltown transformed into a mecca for chic restaurants, clubs and upscale condos.
The cafe owners founded Speakeasy Network in 1998 about a half-block up Second Avenue, creating a separate business that has since become a national Internet provider for thousands of customers. About 135 employees now work for the network.
The cafe employed 10 other people, who are now “out of a job until we can figure out what we’re doing with the space,” Oak said.
Porter, for one, hopes the cafe will be reborn.
He ventured into the charred cafe for the first time last night to assess the damage to his paintings, hoping they, too, can be salvaged.
“It’s really a shame,” he said. “It’s a loss for the entire community.”
Seattle’s Speakeasy Cafe burns on May 18, 2001.
By Alyssa Burrows | Posted 5/22/2001 | HistoryLink.org Essay 3300
On the evening of May 18, 2001, the Belltown internet cafe, the Speakeasy, burns. The upper story of the building at 2nd Avenue and Bell Street is completely consumed in the two-alarm blaze, and the ground floor cafe is heavily damaged. Besides establishing a pioneer outpost on the Internet for those without computers, the Speakeasy also housed a bar, an art gallery, and a small, experimental performance space. Initial investigation targeted an overheated power cord being used to renovate the upper floor to house staff of Speakeasy Network.
At the time of the fire, a performance was being held in the back stage of the Speakeasy Cafe. Patrons were also in the front section of the cafe, some accessing the Internet on the computers and some lounging in the art gallery section. Some 40 or 50 adults and children were evacuated from the ground floor as the fire spread.
A Popular, Hip Hangout
The Speakeasy had been a Belltown cultural hub since its opening in 1995. Besides providing Internet access and the gallery space for visual artists, the performance space in the back of the building hosted plays, comedy troops, films, poetry readings, and dance and music acts. The Speakeasy charged performers only 20-25 percent of the door proceeds, and many experimental shows were held there because of the reduced financial risk to artists and promoters.
The building at 2304 2nd Avenue also used to house a pool hall called the 211 Billiard Club in the upper floor. The space was being renovated into a call center to accommodate Speakeasy’s technical support staff and was under construction.
The show that night, titled “Eruptuous Revival #3,” had a theme of fire and brimstone to mark the 21st anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980.
“Fire! It’s bad. Get out now!”
At approximately 10:40, patrons leaving Speakeasy saw the fire and ran back in to tell the people inside. The fire was raging on the upper floors. All of the 50 or so people in the building, including a few young children, made it out without injury. It was a close call, however, as no fire alarm sounded. Thick black smoke from the upper floors started pouring into the cafe a couple of minutes after the fire was noticed, and the electricity cut out just as the last person shut the back alley exit door.
The flames shot 30 feet out the alley side of the building from the upper floors, scorching the Marvin Gardens Inn Apartments. Shattering windowpanes rained down on the alley and the sidewalk in front of the Speakeasy. The Fire Department arrived a few minutes before 11 p.m., and had the blaze under control within a half hour. The streets filled with spectators who came out from many of the restaurants and venues close to the cafe.
The Seattle Fire Department later reported that the fire was accidental, sparked by an overheated electric cord in a second floor bathroom. The construction workers had just coated the floor with a urethane finish, which fire Lt. Sue Stangl said could explain its rapid spread. Damage to the building was estimated to be about $750,000; and smoke, fire and water damage to the cafe and its contents, including the computers and artwork, was estimated to be around $150,000.
The fire caused the closing of the cafe. Speakeasy continued in business as an Internet provider.
Will Popular Internet Cafe Rise from the Ashes?
by Clark Humphrey
Shortly before 11:00 last Friday night, bar hoppers were doing their usual thang inside the Lava Lounge on Second Avenue, a half-block south of the Speakeasy Cafe. Then someone ran in and yelled something at the bartender, who turned down the stereo and relayed the message.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Speakeasy is now on fire.”
A throng (25-plus) rushed outside and up to the corner of Second and Bell. The Speakeasy Cafe building’s entire second floor was already fully in flames. Window glass and even streetlight lamps were melting in the heat. Fire crews were already there (the place is three blocks from a fire station); a second alarm would draw crews from as far away as Fremont.
The fire, while spectacular, was conquered within half an hour. The cafe and its back performance room had been quickly evacuated (as had been the Marvin Gardens apartments across the alley and the Rendezvous halfway up the block). Musicians at the Speakeasy’s backroom show that night (a Mount St. Helens anniversary-themed show called “Eruptus Revival #3”) had even been able to get some of their instruments out, though some audience members and cafe patrons left purses and coats behind in the ordered rush to leave.
Outside, the people who had gathered from the Belltown bars and the Marvin Gardens evacuees were soon joined by Speakeasy employees and friends who’d heard about the fire from phone calls and late newscasts. They shared reminiscences about the place, worried about its future, shot photos of the lurid spectacle, or just stood silently in emotional semi-shock.
“I was at a friend’s party on Queen Anne,” relates Speakeasy P.R. rep Kat Oak. “I got a call on the phone from somebody who said, ‘Guess what? The Speakeasy’s up in flames.’ I said, ‘It’s a joke, right?’ He said, ‘Go look on the TV right now.’ It was a major shock, to say the least.”
By 1:00 a.m., some Speakeasy employees gathered back at the Lava Lounge. A couple of them even shared conspiracy theories about what, or even who, could have started the fire. By Monday morning, though, it was clear that the fire was caused by a simple electrical accident on the under-construction second floor.
The Speakeasy, which first opened six years ago this month, was Seattle’s first Internet cafe. It offered espresso drinks, meals, snacks, and a bank of PCs connected to a single T1 line. That was one of the fattest, fastest Internet connections available at the time. (The Speakeasy’s servers and lines are housed at a different location, and so were not damaged in the fire.) The cafe was intended from the start to be more than just a refuge for e-mailers and gamers. It was a gathering place for real communities as well as virtual ones. Speakeasy’s 5,000-square-foot space (half the main floor of a two-story-and-basement building) hosted art openings, political rallies (including WTO teach-ins), eclectic music shows in the backroom theater space (all ages at first, until the liquor authorities balked at the beer and wine being sold in the front room), experimental film screenings, plays, and comedy shows (including, most recently, Mike Daisey’s one-man show about his Amazon.com employee misadventures).
The Internet side of the operation, meanwhile, created websites for many local progressive groups, and also hosted many other folks’ sites. It acquired dozens of surplus “dumb terminals” (text-only monitors and keyboards) and installed them at coffeehouses and hangout spots throughout the city, where (for $10 a month) computerless people could exchange e-mail messages and read the text portions of websites.
Over the years, the cafe (while still a popular gathering place) became a relatively minor side operation to the company’s $18 million Internet business, Speakeasy.net, which moved into the former AHA! Theatre space down the street. Only 10 of Speakeasy’s 140 employees work at the cafe. Speakeasy.net now offers dial-up and high-speed DSL Internet accounts in over 20 U.S. cities, and has over 140 employees.
Meal service at the cafe was dropped in favor of standard espresso-house snacks. Rock acts were ousted from the backroom (after complaints from the former 211 Billiard Club upstairs) in favor of less loud and/or more esoteric acts. Owners Mike and Gretchen Apgar even talked in 1999 about shutting the cafe altogether. Instead, late last year they acquired the leases on the rest of the building (including the former Seattle Building Salvage store next door and the former 211 Billiard Club space). At the time of the fire, renovation work had begun putting Speakeasy’s DSL customer-support offices in the upstairs and turning the whole downstairs into an expanded cafe with full meal and liquor service.
So what’s going to happen to the place now?
As of this writing, nobody knows.
Speakeasy had insurance on its interior contents. Preliminary structural reports show the building to be basically sound. Amazingly, the cafe itself suffered little more than heavy water damage. Indeed, while two of the 211’s vintage pool tables (which Speakeasy had acquired) were charred and may be irreparable, the rest of the former 211 space had been cleared out in preparation for the office makeover. Very little work had been done in the former Building Salvage space.
“The structure is still fairly sound,” according to Oak. “The facade and everything, the beams and stuff are still well intact. It would require some gutting, but it’s not where it could be easily said, ‘Let’s raze the building.’
“We have as yet not made any decisions regarding the future of that space or the rebuild of the cafe,” Apgar said Monday. “These are largely contingent on the building owners’ decision.” The owners, according to Oak, have 30 days to announce any plans for the building.
The building owners (who are making no public comments yet) might conceivably use the fire as an excuse to put up some high-rise condo or office project, possibly preserving a little of the building’s outer façade. That possibility is, for now, just speculation. But if it’s attempted, it’ll be a whole community’s tempers that might be set ablaze.
Speakeasy Fire: An Eyewitness Account of the fire on May 18, 2001
By Alyssa Burrows | May 24, 2001 | HistoryLink.org Essay 3301
The night of May 18, 2001, I and another HistoryLink staffer, Chris Goodman, were at the Speakeasy Cafe in Belltown. I was performing at “Eruptuous Revival #3,” hosted by Sheryl Diane. The theme of the evening was fire and brimstone as a tribute to the May 18th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980.
On the bill were Sheryl’s ex-husband Joe Skyward, formerly of Sky Cries Mary, and currently performing with the Posies as their bassist. He did an acoustic set with their daughter Brette in the back performance space. I was up next, reading poetry. I remember looking at my watch when I finished, at 10:10. The fire must have started at about 10 to able to get as big as it was before we were made aware of it. Also on the show schedule were singer and pianist, Margo Lauritzen, and Sheryl and Joe’s son Jaxin, who performed an act dribbling basketballs to rhythm.
Delay, Maybe; Death, No Way
Chris, Carol Waller, and I sat out in the front section for about 20 to 30 minutes before Joe came through from the front saying “Fire, everybody get out!” Brette was feeling ill and had been outside the front of the Speakeasy on 2nd Avenue, about to have Joe drive her home, when she, Joe, and Jay Kuenher, a patron who had been inside and left, first noticed the fire and ran in to tell everyone. Sheryl was about 4 songs into her performance.
No alarm was sounding. I ran back to the performance space to grab my bag, which I had left on a chair. (Yes, I know, but it had my car keys in it.) Joe came into the performance space and said “Fire. It’s bad. Get out now.” Chris said, “Is that emergency exit good?” referring to the lit exit sign in front of a door in the back of the stage, and Joe said, “No, it’s blocked.” Reading the faces of the exiting patrons as I watched for Chris in the back hallway, no one, including myself, was thinking “imminent death,” but rather, something along the lines of: “a small fire that we’ll have to let the Fire Department put out before we continue the show.”
Everyone in the back room left out the back alley door and was immediately horrified to see 30-foot flames shooting out the upper windows on the east alley side against Bell street, licking the Marvin Gardens Apartment building. There were only about 20 feet between the flames and the back door exit and the heat was intense. Everyone headed north up the alley, and I saw men carrying Sheryl’s keyboard out. Joe pounded on alley doors and tried to rouse anyone left in the Northern part of the building.
Nick of Time
Everyone was out within a minute or two, but that turned out to be all the time we actually had. There were about 50 people inside, perhaps 30 in the back room and 20 people in the cafe. There were probably about 5 toddlers in the audience, some who had been running loose before I performed. The heat was breaking windows out of the upper floors at this point, raining glass down on the alley.
Chris, the Speakeasy bartender, and another worker did one last check of the space to make sure no one was left inside or in the bathrooms. Chris said he saw black smoke pouring in from the front entrance, which he said was his cue to “get the hell out.” He left the building through the alley. Just before he shut the door, the electricity went out and the bottom floor went black. Joe was in the alley throwing rocks through the windows of the upper floors in the north part of the building in case anyone was inside. No one knew if there were residents. Joe and Chris moved a garbage dumpster so a fire truck could get past it in the alley.
I walked around the front of the building looking for Carol, whom we had lost sight of, hoping she had gone out the front entrance. Upwards of 200 people filled the streets watching the fire. Not knowing for sure if Carol was definitely out of the building, I felt ill and distraught, scanning the faces until I found her. From directly across 2nd, we watched the flames engulf the upper floors and the windows blow out onto the sidewalk.
I remember thinking I was glad to have not found a close parking space as I watched the finish of a car in front of the Speakeasy begin to smoke. The flames rose in three columns, 2 feet wide and 20 feet high from the upper floor directly above the cafe, clearly visible through the broken-out windows. They joined into an undulating sea of fire at the ceiling that reminded me of the Backdraft movie trailer. The Fire Department was there within five minutes, and looked to have it under control within about 20 minutes to half an hour.
Without Joe Skyward, Brette Howard, and Jay Kuenher to warn the patrons, and without the Speakeasy staff and Chris Goodman to check for any people left in the building, there would have definitely been injuries and death. Joe is a certified hero responsible for saving lives, and I must thank him. I subsequently went to the Two Bells with my companions for a drink. With no fire alarm or perhaps a disconnected one due to the construction on the second floor, we were just lucky. And we knew it.
I remember all the performances I have seen and been in at the Speakeasy, and hope it can be made into a functioning performance space again soon. My condolences to Gretchen and Mike Apgar, the owners of Speakeasy.