The news that his restaurant was ablaze woke Steve Skrine around 3:25 a.m. on Sept. 2. “Forest Park police told me there was a significant fire on the second floor,” said Skrine, 49. Skrine Chops Pork Chop Emporium at 7230 Madison St. was burnt out that night.
“The employees had all gotten out at 2:45 a.m. when they had closed up for the night,” says Skrine, who lives in southwest Oak Park. The cause of the fire is still undetermined.
Some 50 firefighters from Forest Park and six neighboring departments fought the blaze for seven hours. An adjacent shuttered antique shop at 7232 Madison St. sustained severe water damage.
A-tar-and-gravel roof with “at least seven layers on it” was so thick that firefighters couldn’t cut through it to control the blaze, said Skrine. It soon collapsed into the floor below. “The roof weighed so much when it went down, it blew out the bricks and blew out the beams on the second floor.” The first floor did not collapse, says Skrine, because the “old joists were so thick they held up the ceiling.”
By 8:30 a.m., the fire was out, the restaurant was a burnt-out shell and Skrine was asked if he would rebuild in Forest Park.
“Heck yeah,” he told a reporter.
Three months later, Skrine Chops is rising from the ashes. Scaffolding scales the walls where bricklayers are at work. “We sandblasted the old bricks and are putting them back up,” said Skrine. Cranes will soon lift a new roof and supports onto the building to protect it from the elements. Cleanup has been massive. “We removed 110 tons of debris from the building,” said Skrine.
Lost was the restaurant’s signature antique wood dcor. Step into Skrine’s Chops, Steve said, and “step out of Forest Park into the North Woods of Wisconsin.” Skrine is passionate about antique wood. “I’ve torn down 12 barns in Wisconsin.” He partners with a farmer in Cazenovia, Wisc. and 50 carpenters to salvage and reuse antique wood from mid-1800s collapsed barns.
Ironically, he’s saving some of the old-growth wood from being burned – which is one method farmers use to remove an unused barn replaced by fiberglass or steel outbuildings. “You’re losing a piece of Americana every day,” said Skrine. The restaurant remodel will use wood from a salvaged Reedsburg, Wisc. barn. A vaulted ceiling made of oak and white pine beams has been created from barn beams. Handmade tables and chairs of reclaimed wood will showcase the work of specialist carpenters, says Skrine. The barn’s stone foundation will be re-purposed into a floor-to-ceiling fireplace in the new party room.
Also burned or soaked with water was the restaurant’s collection of taxidermy regional animals. “We had a black bear, a fox, a beaver, all kinds of fish, a turkey, pheasant and many, many deer head mounts,” says Skrine, who adds, “I’m not a hunter.” Many of the mounts were donated by the Archery Custom Shop at 7240 Madison St. Skrine is restoring what he can, he says. Luckily the restaurant had replacement and code insurance, said Skrine. “If anybody has a mount or animal they’d like to donate or keep at the new Skrine, we’d be happy to examine it. It’s gotta be quality.”
Oak Park historical restoration specialists Robert Jahn Construction are handling the rebuild. The new restaurant will be completely up to fire code regulations and have a sprinkler system on both floors. Skrine says he’s hoping the restaurant will reopen in spring.
Steve’s wife Mary Rita, 47, says Steve himself is working hard on the cleanup and construction and has hired some of the restaurant employees to help. “I was skeptical at the beginning when he decided to do it himself. But I think it’s motivating him through all this devastation.”
Mary Rita said she didn’t see the damage until a couple of days after the fire. “I didn’t really believe it until I got there and saw the enormity.” She has been amazed at the outpouring of local support and love from family and friends. Her college-bound daughter found good essay fodder in the fire experience, she says. “People have been wonderful. We’ve gotten emails, letters, phone calls.”
Christmas will be bittersweet, says Mary Rita. The party room was her restaurant bailiwick. Madison Street neighbors caffe de Luca offered to host the family’s annual family holiday dinner. “It’s such a good life-lesson for our three kids how everyone rallied around us. It’s motivated us to come back even stronger.”