Fire at Rizzo’s brings back memories of other downtown blazes

Fire closes Rizzo's nightclub at 6 W. Jefferson in downtown Naperville June 6. | Photo by Linda Girardi
Fire closes Rizzo's nightclub at 6 W. Jefferson in downtown Naperville June 6. | Photo by Linda Girardi

Rizzo’s restaurant and bar in downtown Naperville was heavily damaged by fire Sunday morning.

The storefront next door to it, then the home of Wilma’s Cafe, was ruined by fire 15 years ago. And the Rosebud Italian Specialties & Pizzeria restaurant suffered a similar fate at its original location just a block or so to the south and west, and almost four years to the day of the Rizzo’s blaze.

It would be enough to give you the willies if not for the assurances of Naperville Fire Department Fire Marshal Scott A. Scheller. Not only were the origins and causes of at least two of the blazes different, Scheller said, but the downtown area’s post-Civil War-era buildings are held to the same stringent fire code standards as Naperville’s most modern structures.

Scheller said the fire that erupted around 6 a.m. Sunday at Rizzo’s, 6 W. Jefferson Ave., began at the southwest corner of the rear of the building.

“The origin was either the roof or the outside porch deck” of the two-story building, Scheller said Monday during an interview.

The owners of Rizzo’s only recently renovated the bar’s upstairs area, to address overcrowding and other safety issues. While investigators have yet to determine the cause of the blaze, it all but certainly will be different from what started the fires at Wilma’s Cafe and Rosebud.

Wilma’s Cafe for years was a downtown mainstay at 4 W. Jefferson Ave., just east of Rizzo’s in the space now occupied by Noodles & Company. Construction workers who were using blow torches and heating tar to fill cracks in the roof sparked the blaze the afternoon of Dec. 1, 1999, causing more than $250,000 in damage to the restaurant and the two apartments above it.

Unlike the rooftop fires at Rizzo’s and Wilma’s Cafe, an overheated pizza oven proved to be the culprit in the July 11, 2010 blaze that did $100,000 damage to Rosebud, then located at 48 W. Chicago Ave. Flames shot into the ventilation system and upward to the ceiling and roof shortly after a customer had placed a lunchtime order for a large-size pizza.

A firefighter that afternoon suffered a minor injury. No firefighters were hurt during the other fires, nor were any restaurant employees, patrons or passersby injured during any of the emergencies.

Scheller added there was nothing criminal or suspicious about any of the fires, and that all three were accidental in nature.

Wilma’s Cafe relocated to a strip mall on Ogden Avenue on Naperville’s northwest side following the fire there, and has since closed. Rosebud moved to 22 E. Chicago Ave., just down the street from its former home.

Many of the buildings in downtown Naperville were constructed shortly after the Civil War. Rosebud’s first location was originally built as a community creamery, and later served as a creamery for Cock Robin/Prince Castle ice cream, a car dealership showroom and legal offices, as well as two other restaurants.

“Some of the buildings have been changed around and reconfigured and remodeled” over the years, Scheller said. All such work must meet modern fire codes and other requirements, he said.

Scheller said the greatest challenge or problem some of the structures present for firefighters is “the close proximity of building upon building.” Firefighters sometimes discover empty spaces and “hidden areas” between the buildings’ ceilings and roofs, or the floors and ceilings, where flames can be burning out of sight, he said.

“The biggest thing that can save a building is a sprinkler system,” Scheller said. Rizzo’s has such a system, and had the flames originated inside, or spread Sunday into the interior, the sprinklers would have automatically activated and extinguished them, he said.

Wilma’s Cafe did not have a sprinkler system, although Scheller said the original Rosebud location did. But because the fire broke out in the area above the sprinklers, they did not go off, he said.

Scheller stressed the city’s fire code enforcement officers are diligent in inspecting businesses and issuing violations when necessary. He said the fires at Wilma’s Cafe, Rosebud and Rizzo’s were a matter of coincidence.

The cause of the fire at Rizzo’s might not be determined for days or even weeks.

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