Gay nightclub fire was arson
The space once occupied by the Velvet Rope nightclub, shown here after an arson fire gutted it last year, will be home to a new incarnation of Papaspiros Greek Taverna, which is moving from the other side of Lake Street. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 8, 2012 8:31AM
An Oak Park nightclub fire Sunday morning was intentionally set, officials said Monday.
Arson was the cause of the fire at the Velvet Rope Lounge, 728 Lake St., at 6:30 a.m. Sunday; however, officials are being tight-lipped, saying only that they will have no further comment until their investigation is completed.
The building was declared a crime scene just minutes after the fire was struck Sunday morning at 6:55 a.m. Police and fire investigators spent the next seven hours combing through the damaged business and taking numerous pictures.
Entrepreneur and Oak Park resident Frank Elliott, who has owned the nightclub since October 2008, spent much of Sunday there.
Police told Elliott Sunday that the fire was intentional.
“They said it was arson,” said Elliott. “I’m making the assumption it was a hate crime.”
The fire had “numerous points of origin,” including in the basement and on the main floor of the lounge, Elliott said.
Police told Elliott that there had been slurs or derogatory comments left on the interior walls, but he did not see them.
“They wiped the comments off before they let me in,” he said.
Elliott also said police cut a large section of construction block from a wall.
“Supposedly there was a handprint on it,” said Elliott, who said he overheard the remark between police investigators.
On Monday, Elliott said he still knew few details of the fire, except that firefighters to open walls and lay water down. The water and heavy smoke as significantly damaged his business.
“From the looks of it, it’s pretty much everything,” he said. “Smoke damage, holes in the wall.”
He said the business had been opened Saturday night as usual.
“We closed last night as normal at 2 a.m.,” he said, adding that less than five hours later he was awakened by a call from the Fire Department that his business was burning.
Firefighters were called to the 700 block of Lake Street at 6:24 a.m. on the report of a fire at the rear of the Red Hen Bakery at the corner of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue.
When firefighters arrived at 6:26 a.m., they reported “nothing showing” at the bakery, but two minutes later reported the smell of smoke from the rear of the lounge. After another two minutes the officer reported seeing smoke.
At 6:36 a.m. a firefighter reported “something on fire on the roof at 728 Lake.”
Entry was forced to the building several minutes later, as attempts were made to contact the owners of the four businesses on either side of 728 Lake.
“Lake Street (fire) command” reported the fire officially struck (extinguished) at 6:55 a.m.
The fire disrupted pedestrian traffic to and from the large “Day In Our Village” celebration a hundred feet west across Oak Park. Foot traffic on the north side of Lake Street was diverted into the westbound lanes of Lake Street until 2 p.m.
Neighboring businesses Geppetto’s Toy Store and the Flat Top Grill also sustained damage.
Eric Masoncup, owner of Geppetto’s, said his business will be closed at least through Sunday.
“We got smoke damage in the store and some water in the basement. We’ve got a recovery team determining the extent of the damage,” Masoncup said.
Danny Williamson, the regional manager for Flat Top Grill, said his restaurant had smoke and structural damage from the fire and firefighting efforts.
“We’ll be closed for a while,” he said, saying he hoped to re-open “no later than the end of the week.”