Empire to open in advance of St. Patrick’s Day 2015

Looks can be deceiving.

It might not be obvious from the curb, but big changes are coming to the padlocked space southeast of Chicago Avenue and Main Street. Its windows might bear plywood and “keep out” signage, but there is every reason to expect Empire will open for business well in advance of St. Patrick’s Day 2015. The former Rosebud restaurant site will be the next link in the local Irish-themed Ballydoyle gastropub chain.

Ballydoyle owner Phil Cullen said this week that interior demolition work on the history-rich site has been completed.

“So basically all the old stuff inside has been cleared out so we can see what we’re dealing with in there,” said Cullen, who reported the final schematic drawings for the first floor were just finished a few days ago.

Once the inside space was de-cluttered, Cullen said, he was surprised by the wide-open expanse, unobstructed by the support posts often found in vintage structures.

“The neatest thing was the old building, the stone one … it’s a clear span in there,” he said.

And as crews dismantled layers of ceiling materials, the sense of generous head space grew. The main floor measures 15 feet from floor to ceiling, and at least 10 feet on each of the upper two levels.

“With those old buildings, they liked to add ceilings to bring it down to 8 feet,” Cullen said. “They’re all real tall ceilings. It’s nice.”

Its history

Most residents remember that Rosebud occupied the future Empire building until a fire in mid-2010 closed the restaurant. It has since reopened a block to the east. But the three old buildings that comprise the space that will be Empire have served a variety of functions through the years.

The brick portion toward Main Street was home to Naperville’s first commercial laundry, opened in 1890 by C.N. Shumaker, who used a coal-fired boiler to power the churning tubs and wringers. Shumaker expanded his building westward with a lean-to for coal storage that in the late 1930s was turned into a shoe repair shop.

East of the brick building, a stone structure that was one of the first erected in Naperville, dating from 1848, housed H.H. Peaslee’s grocery store, as well as a dance hall on the third floor that attracted many of the city’s younger people. It later was used for a garage, a radio and appliance repair shop, and a couple of dairy operations.

Making changes

To enable use of the trio of structures as a single space, Cullen will be bringing in 20-foot steel beams to provide support while walls are being removed, reconfigured and rebuilt.

“There’s really three separate buildings there, but they’re not open. We like it to be open,” Cullen said.

Also in the plans is a retractable roof that will take about three months to fabricate. Cullen said part of his vision is patrons sitting in the area overlooking the West Branch of the DuPage River while they watch bands perform inside the establishment.

Updated floor plans, drawn up since the demolition revealed the realities of the available space, have increased the bathroom presence as well. Cullen said two full bathrooms will be available on both the ground and second floors. Initially he thought there would be sufficient space for only “courtesy” facilities on the first level, a detail that concerned some City Council members.

Cullen has said Empire will serve as a family-friendly restaurant as well as an attraction for entertainment and cocktails later in the evening.

After discussing the request at length, the council last May amended city code to allow an additional late-night liquor permit that will enable Empire to remain open after its kitchen stops serving food. Some downtown business advocates and police officials were leery of adding another night spot as the occurrence of bar brawls, thefts and other incidents in the bar district increased. However, the council was assured that Empire would target patrons ages 30 to 55 and their families, which presumably reduces the risk of an uptick in crime. The council agreed unanimously to grant the request.

Negotiations leading to Cullen’s purchase of the buildings late last year took longer than he’d expected, which pushed back his initial plans to open Empire in June or July. Depending how long it takes to secure the necessary permits, he expects to begin construction in early summer and open for business in late September.

“That’s what we’re hoping for, but you never know,” he said.

Sun columnist Joni Hirsch Blackman contributed to this story.