Early-morning fire destroys college-town landmark

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- An early morning fire Monday destroyed the Heidelberg bar and restaurant, for 40 years a student hangout next door to the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The cause wasn't immediately known because the building was so unstable that investigators were delayed getting inside, said Steve Sapp, battalion chief for the Columbia Fire Department. A preliminary report said the fire may have started near a heating and freezing unit. Sapp put the "conservative and preliminary" damage estimate at more than $250,000.

The Heidelberg had been closed for about half an hour when the fire was reported by a passing motorist, Sapp said. No injuries were reported.

But there was a sense of loss among college students, professors and bar patrons who gathered on the sidewalk across the street from the charred, collapsed structure. Some picked up chunks of debris as keepsakes. To them, the bar was just "The 'Berg."'

"The Heidelberg was a landmark if you went to school in Columbia. I suppose some of the most serious conversations I had at some of those important times in my life -- or times that seemed so important -- happened right there," said Cal Johnson, 40, of Columbia.

'Someplace special'

"It's where we would come to blow off steam after class or celebrate passing a big test. I know for some it's just a bar, but for a lot of students and former students, it was someplace special," Johnson said.

Last December, Jason Miller and Kristen Hendricks got engaged at the Heidelberg -- eventually. "As he asked me to marry him, the waitress walked up and asked if we needed anything else," Hendricks told the Columbia Daily Tribune.

She hesitated about answering, only "because we were waiting for her to leave." The Missouri graduates' wedding is this Saturday.

Richard Walls Jr., whose family owns the Heidelberg, said his father started the business in 1963. It was named for the oldest university town, Heidelberg, Germany, and decor included cozy wood booths and antique beer steins -- along with autographed Missouri basketballs and assorted Tigers memorabilia. He said the only thing salvageable appeared to be a wooden sign that hung outside.

"I grew up there, washing dishes, tending bar, waiting tables," said Walls, 38. "It's still a great location, and I'd have to say we want to rebuild, but it'll take time."

The Heidelberg is across Ninth Street from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the chancellor's residence. A coffee house and a pizza delivery place on either side had smoke and water damage but will be able to reopen, Sapp said.

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