Neighborhood hub lost in fire: Speakeasy much more than a cafe

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For years, Belltown's Speakeasy Cafe had been a hub of the community.

Yesterday, the community came to it again. Artists who had shown work there and neighbors who had spent dozens of coffee-drinking hours at the cafe gazed at the blackened, burned-out building and offered the cafe owners support.

Friday evening, a fire gutted the cafe that had been a sort of living room for the Belltown neighborhood on the north end of downtown Seattle. The Speakeasy, at Second Avenue and Bell Street, had brought together neighborhood residents, tech workers, artists, poets and musicians, creating a civic and artistic hub and a virtual community through its pioneering Internet cafe and Internet services.

"It's a horrible, horrible loss," said Constance Dorgan, manager of the Crocodile Cafe down the street. "It was a central meeting place for the neighborhood."

The fire broke out about 11 p.m. Friday, with 30 fire units and 60 firefighters battling the two-alarm blaze, some of them for up to 45 minutes. The fire also damaged the Marvin Gardens Inn east of the Speakeasy. One unit at Marvin Gardens remained off-limits yesterday, while the other residents were allowed to return to their homes, said Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Sue Stangl. No one was injured.

Yesterday, the Fire Department had not determined a cause of the fire. Nor did it have damage estimates. The building appeared to be structurally sound and can probably be repaired, Stangl said.

The fire apparently started on the southwest corner of the second floor of the building that housed the cafe, Stangl said. That floor, which formerly housed the 211 Club pool hall and was being renovated to accommodate the Speakeasy's technical-support staff, suffered fire damage. The first floor, housing the cafe, sustained mainly water damage, Stangl said.

Speakeasy Network, an Internet-service provider housed in a separate building across the street, will continue providing service, said Mike Apgar, who co-owns both the cafe and the separate Speakeasy Network.

But Apgar, who leases the cafe space and has insurance on the Speakeasy, hasn't decided about the cafe's future. In 1999, he said he was thinking of closing the cafe to focus on Internet-related enterprises. (The owner of the building declined to comment yesterday.)

From the opening of the cafe in 1995, Apgar and his wife, co-owner Gretchen Apgar, had wanted to create a community. They wanted more than just a cafe, and when they found out about the Internet, it seemed like a good blend.

Personal computers were still relatively expensive, and few people had Internet access. They started the Speakeasy Cafe with 10 text-only computer terminals and eight graphics-capable terminals.

But by 1998, with more people connected to the Net, the Speakeasy founders increasingly focused on providing Internet services to homes and businesses. They created Speakeasy Network as a separate company.

Today, the network is a national Internet service provider for "tens of thousands" of customers (the Apgars declined to give an exact figure) and generates about 99 percent of the Apgars' business revenue. About 135 employees work for Speakeasy Network. Only about 10 work for the cafe.

From the beginning, the Speakeasy Cafe made sure artists would be part of the mix.

"I wouldn't go to just an Internet cafe," said Tina LaPadula, who founded the Speakeasy Cafe's art gallery. "We thought, hopefully, having art, film and theater in the space would make more people hang out there."

Regular shows were scheduled in the cafe's back room, including film and video screenings, theater and dance performances, and poetry readings.

"It was a much-needed venue for the arts," said Joel Bachar, curator of Independent Exposure, a monthly screening of international independent short films. "It gave me a home base, it launched my career and helped build an independent film community here."

The cafe occupied a niche as a place for artists to try new things at little financial risk. For about 20 to 25 percent of the door revenue, the Speakeasy would provide space for actors, playwrights, dancers.

It also gave artists a space to show their works. Almost every show at the cafe has resulted in sales, with the artists receiving about 75 percent of the proceeds, LaPadula said. Typically, established art galleries get about 50 percent of sales proceeds.

From about 1995 to 1998, it was also a hub for live, alternative music and Northwest jazz, with local names such Greta Matassa and Wayne Horvitz performing in the front room, along with other musicians often working on new or experimental pieces.

Especially in the early days, it wasn't unusual to find a mix of corporate workers having coffee up front, senior citizens learning to surf the Web, avante garde artists in the back and Belltown hipsters milling around, said David Russell, founding arts director for the cafe.

"Whatever the damage," said Apgar "it's certainly the end of a chapter for the Speakeasy."

Janet I. Tu can be reached at 206-464-2272 or