As word spread early Monday that one of the city’s most historic bowling allies was going up in flames, members of the Drehobl family got in their cars and rushed towards the plumes of smoke.
When Ryan Drehobl, 34, arrived just after 1 a.m., flames were shooting out the windows of Lincoln Square Lanes. The bowling alley opened 1918 on the second floor of a two-story brick building at 4874 N. Lincoln Ave. The eight-lane alley was the oldest operating alley in Chicago, family members said.
“It’s all gone,” Drehobl, who managed the business, said Monday morning as he stared at the charred and smoldering ruins.
His grandfather, Dick Drehobl, 79, stood nearby, in shock. The family patriarch owned the business for more than three decades until he sold it a few years ago to a group of family members that included his son, Mike Drehobl.
Despite giving up the reins, Dick Drehobl still came in every day. “It’s what kept him going,” said Mike Drehoble.
The place took on an added importance in 2012 when it underwent a $1 million rehab that updated the space while — at the same time — meticulously maintaining its original character.
“All the work we did — that’s my son’s baby. We put about a million bucks into it,” said Dick Drehobl. “Now I don’t know what we’re going to do. We put all these antiques in there and made it real nice.”
Greg Hajdich, 40, spearheaded the painstaking rehab project and counted it among his finest work. “This place was a pillar in the community,” he said as firefighters began packing up their gear. “A lot of that stuff was irreplaceable.”
Mike Drehobl said he’ll particularly miss a wall mural of Abraham Lincoln sitting in a chair.
Investigators with the fire department are looking into whether the blaze originated in the kitchen area of the bowling alley. That’s where flames were first spotted when firefighters arrived on scene at about 12:45 a.m.
Mike Drehoble was a bit perplexed by this, noting that the kitchen closed shortly after 10 p.m. Sunday, with the last employee leaving the bowling alley just after midnight.
The bowling alley’s chef sat cheerlessly across the street drinking coffee, too dejected to chat at length or have his picture taken.
With the roof collapsed, its brick facade crumbling and much of the ceiling that separated the first and second floor caved in, it was unclear Monday morning whether or not the building would need to be demolished.
“It just doesn’t seem real. I’m sure that it will sink in eventually,” Mike Dehobl said.
Regulars and well-wishers stopped by Monday morning to chat about memories, mourn their special spot and console the Drehobl family.
“As kids, we used to go in there sometimes to just keep warm in the winter and watch people bowl,” said Vern Styck, 53.
“I used to sneak up in the balcony with my girlfriend when we were teenagers. It was great. The whole neighborhood is going to be sorry to see it go,” Styck said.
About 6:45 a.m. Monday, the lanes posted a message on Facebook:
“It is with heavy hearts that we bid our customers a saddened farewell. We will cherish the memories you have left us with. It is our hope that this historic alley will remain in your thoughts. The LSL family would like to thank you for your continued love and support as we look forward to the future.”
Matt Kollar, owner of Matty K’s Hardware Store — which occupied the building’s first floor — was equally dazed Monday morning as firefighters continued to pour water on smoldering hot spots that sent clouds of black smoke east over rush-hour traffic on Western Avenue.
Kollar’s business was waterlogged, but mostly spared from the flames. Kollar, 35, arrived on scene around 1 a.m. after a police officer called to notify him about the fire.
“In my wildest imagination I couldn’t believe what was going to be there when I arrived,” said Kollar, who said he gave firefighters an inventory of flammable products in his store.
Kollar, who is married and has two daughters, was able to retrieve a hard drive containing information on his business accounts early Monday.
He opened the hardware store four years ago.
“I’m just figuring out what the next steps are for me and my family,” Kollar said as a neighbor on his way to work wished Kollar luck and asked if there was anything he could do.
A bit of miscommunication sparked a emergency “May Day” call among firefighters during the blaze, said fire department spokesman Larry Langford.
“Crews [were] trying to make an interior attack, but part of the structure started giving way, so they had to leave,” said Langford, noting that in the aftermath — after taking a head count — it appeared one firefighter was missing and still inside the building. But the missing firefighter was actually the first one out of the building and located moments later, Langford said.
Initially, it appeared there were no injuries, but — after the fire was brought under control around 2 a.m. — two male firefighters noticed minor burns to their necks and ears and were treated at a hospital.
“That can happen with the adrenaline pumping,” Langford said.
Both businesses had deep roots in the community, said David Trout, president of the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, who issued a statement calling the fire “a tremendous loss for many residents of the community of Lincoln Square and surrounding neighborhoods,” and adding that “we will work with them in the weeks and months ahead.”