LIMA — The night clerk at the Kirwan Hotel and the dispatcher for Radio Cab Co. were the first to notice the “huge gulps of smoke just belching from the first-floor windows” of the building across East Market Street and, almost simultaneously, called for help, according to the Lima Citizen.
By the time the wail of sirens broke the silence late on Christmas Eve in 1963 and the first of nearly 70 firefighters — many roused from their holiday slumber — arrived on the scene about 11:30 p.m., flames were shooting through all four floors of the Harrod Building at 119 E. Market St. and spreading to the building next door. A handful of apartment residents had already fled down a fire escape in the back.
About 1,000 people, many fresh from late-Christmas Eve church services, thronged to the scene while the nearby Lima House on the corner of East Market Street and the Public Square was evacuated. A coating of ice soon covered the street as firefighters poured water on the wind-whipped fire in the frigid temperatures, The Lima News wrote.
In the week following the fire, the gutted buildings were leveled. Duke Fink, owner of the El Tempo Night Club on the ground floor of the Harrod Building, told the News he believed fire started in the marquee in front of his club.
The building that went up in smoke that night was built in 1892 at the height of Lima’s oil boom by Minor Harrod. It replaced an earlier two-story wood-frame structure in which Harrod had operated a restaurant. Before that, George W. Justus had operated Lima’s first butcher shop on the site.
“Minor Harrod is about to open a new hotel. His block on East Market Street was built in units arranged especially for hotel purposes and he has decided to go into the hotel business himself,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported on April 24, 1894, adding, “At first only furnished rooms will be rented but the purpose is later on to put in kitchen utensils and run a regular hotel.”
A promotional flyer from the 1890s touted the hotel’s “75 spacious, well lighted and pleasant guest rooms” as well as “a thoroughly equipped bar and lunch counter, at which the eatables and drinkables, and the service are first-class in the best sense of the word.”
The new hotel had a strong connection to the oil industry. Harrod, like many Lima businessmen at the time, was involved in the industry as were J.W.R. Attleberger and A.C. Snyder, who became the Harrod House proprietors in 1896. “These gentlemen are entering upon a new enterprise, both having been for the past 20 years in the employ of the Standard Oil Co.,” the Times-Democrat wrote on May 6, 1896. Both men had come to Lima from Pennsylvania, where the country’s first big oil strike occurred.
Attleberger and Harrod had been on the job only a few months when they had to deliver some bad news unique to the time and place. “The boarders at the Harrod House this morning were all thrown into a state of sadness when informed by the proprietors, Messrs. Attleberger and Snyder, that thieves had visited their hennery and had departed with the greater part of its contents,” the Times-Democrat reported Aug. 19, 1896. Attleberger, who had bought out Snyder’s interest in the Harrod House late in 1896, himself left the business around 1900.
Harrod refurbished the hotel portion of the business in 1903. The Times-Democrat on Sept.14, 1903, wrote that “the entire house … has been papered throughout, also refurnished in such manner as to make it today one of the finest European hotels in this vicinity.”
On April 1, 1905, W.P. Gerhart, who had formerly operated a restaurant on West High Street, celebrated his first anniversary as operator of the restaurant in the Harrod House. The Lima Daily News noted that “the success of the establishment has been beyond the most sanguine expectations of Mr. Gerhart, whose ability to serve the public is unequalled.”
The Harrod House restaurant had become popular destination. In March 1910, the Daily News reported Gerhart had “opened a dairy lunch counter in connection with his popular dining room … for those who like a cold lunch with a cup of coffee or desire a cold lunch put up when traveling.”
Gerhart died in March 1915. Harrod, the building’s creator and namesake, died in 1926 at the age of 92. The Harrod building and restaurant would pass through many hands over the next half century.
In April 1933, when the restaurant was being operated by Leo Hempker and Prohibition was coming to an end, an ad in the News for the Harrod House Restaurant proclaimed: “We Serve Beer.” The restaurant also served lunch for 25 cents and was open from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m.
The restaurant became Dever’s Restaurant in the “Old Harrod House Building” shortly thereafter and by May 1937, according to a newspaper ad, had Pabst Blue Ribbon beer “direct from the keg” as well as “the best in food” served around the clock. In July 1937, the News wrote that Dever’s, which boasted an air-conditioned dining room, had won wide recognition. “There are accommodations for 150 at a time in this place — quite a contrast from the small quarters around the corner in which DeVer (owner Ralph DeVer) started.”
As World War II ended, James and Nena Sarno took over the restaurant. An ad in the News in December 1945 claimed, “Lima well can be proud of the progressive spirit of Jim and Nena Sarno, who have spared no expense to provide their growing and thriving city with a truly fine restaurant and distinctive cocktail lounge.”
The Sarnos, who operated several Lima bars and restaurant, including Nena’s Lounge on East North Street, announced a $34,000 renovation of the East Market Street property in July 1949. In addition to remodeling the kitchen, the News reported, a new “banquet room will be housed in a new cement block structure being erected at the north end of the restaurant.”
Sarno’s was again upgraded in 1957. “The ‘new’ Sarno’s centers on the modern, six-sided bar, which seats 40 people,” the Citizen wrote in October 1957. “In the center of the bar is a bandstand for guest entertainers, which are booked every three or four weeks.”
By the early 1960s, the Sarnos, beset with financial problems, were forced to sell their properties, including Sarno’s on East Market Street. By April 1961, Sarno’s had become the El Tempo.
In the wake of the Christmas Eve fire in 1963, the News noted that the Harrod Building “came into public view recently by being included in the Public Square Urban Renewal area which was defeated at the polls. … More recent interest in the quarter block area which includes the destroyed building was brought about with the city planning commission’s recommendation for the area to be the possible site for the proposed $900,000 hall of justice.”
Lima’s Hall of Justice was opened in 1969.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.