The landmark pavilion on the northeast side of Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis was heavily damaged by fire early Thursday, and investigators spent the day trying to find out what sparked the blaze.
Neighbors saw flames shooting from the building that houses the Lola on the Lake restaurant about 4 a.m. and called firefighters to the scene. Crews were able to put out the raging fire in about 20 minutes, but by then the metal roof on the concrete structure at 3000 E. Lake Calhoun Parkway had collapsed, said Minneapolis Fire Department spokesman Bryan Tyner.
Fire officials say lightning might have sparked the fire. Thunderstorms were in the area at the time.
Hours after the fire, the smell of smoke hung in the air and the building operated by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board appeared to be a total loss, Tyner said.
The area around the building was taped off as investigators began sifting through the charred debris to try to discover the cause. “We are simply devastated,” a statement posted on Lola on the Lake’s Facebook page said. “We are grateful for no injuries and we look forward to rebuilding.”
Athena Priest, who along with her husband, Sheff, ran the Tin Fish restaurant in the building for 14 years before ending their lease in 2017, said it was tough to see the damage.
“I’m shocked. I’m sad,” Priest said while looking at the melted ruins. “We loved the place and it loved us back. This is the city’s patio. It’s sad for the city.”
Priest, who was in tears Thursday morning, said she and her husband opened Tin Fish after looking at the once-forlorn building and thinking it “was a shame that people didn’t come to it.” She wondered if people would come there to eat.
They did. Over the 14 years Tin Fish was open, thousands came to nosh and sit by the lake. For others, particularly young workers, it was their first job.
“We raised families in that place,” Priest said, referring to the young workers. “This feels like home. It was their home, too. It’s gone. It is totaled. It’s sad.”
The season after Tin Fish closed, a new eatery, Lola on the Lake, opened.
The restaurant, operated by Louis King, offers seafood, baby back ribs, rib tips, smoked mac-and-cheese and several versions of chicken wings, beverages and frozen treats. The eatery had just opened for the 2019 season two weeks ago.
The fire ignited hours after a vote Wednesday night by a Minneapolis Park Board committee to remove the Calhoun name from the surrounding roads, an issue that has been met with vocal opposition in the past.
While King said he didn’t think the naming issue and fire were connected, his wife and restaurant co-owner, Beverly King, wondered.
“You just never know how crazy these folks are,” she said.
City engineers were on the scene to assess the structural condition of the building, Tyner said.
The pavilion has been a fixture at the corner of E. Lake Calhoun Parkway and Lake Street since it was built in 1930.
The original structure featured restrooms and a small concession stand that sold refreshments. It was renovated in 1988 and is now one of the most visited places in the Minneapolis parks system, said spokeswoman Dawn Sommers.
“People remember it as the place they came to buy ice cream. It’s been a part of people’s lives,” she said. “We are very shocked and saddened by the fire.”
It’s too early to say what will happen next, Sommers said.
It was not immediately clear if Thursday’s fire would affect the Park Board’s boat and kayak rental at the lake.
“Right now we are focused on what we need to do today,” Sommers said. That included securing the area and preventing runoff from entering the lake. “We will be making plans to move forward.”
Across the circular drive on the south side of the pavilion, it will be business as usual at the Minneapolis Sailing Center.
The organization’s boathouse was without power Thursday due to the fire, but the center was planning to bring in a generator and portable toilets to remain open, said Executive Director Ted Salzman.
“While we are terribly saddened about our neighbor’s fire damage, our facility and equipment was unaffected by the fire,” he said.
Eric Austin, the executive chef at Lola’s, said officials told him the fire did not start in the kitchen.
He said he left everything in order before heading out around 9 p.m. Wednesday and had learned of the fire from concerned friends on Facebook.
Often, when he knows the next day will be busy, he will stay in the kitchen until the early morning hours preparing stocks and sauces.
“I’m glad that I didn’t do that last night,” he said.