Shortly before 11:00 last Friday night, bar hoppers were doing their usual thang inside the Lava Lounge on Second Avenue, a half-block south of the Speakeasy Cafe. Then someone ran in and yelled something at the bartender, who turned down the stereo and relayed the message.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Speakeasy is now on fire."

A throng (25-plus) rushed outside and up to the corner of Second and Bell. The Speakeasy Cafe building's entire second floor was already fully in flames. Window glass and even streetlight lamps were melting in the heat. Fire crews were already there (the place is three blocks from a fire station); a second alarm would draw crews from as far away as Fremont.

The fire, while spectacular, was conquered within half an hour. The cafe and its back performance room had been quickly evacuated (as had been the Marvin Gardens apartments across the alley and the Rendezvous halfway up the block). Musicians at the Speakeasy's backroom show that night (a Mount St. Helens anniversary-themed show called "Eruptus Revival #3") had even been able to get some of their instruments out, though some audience members and cafe patrons left purses and coats behind in the ordered rush to leave.

Outside, the people who had gathered from the Belltown bars and the Marvin Gardens evacuees were soon joined by Speakeasy employees and friends who'd heard about the fire from phone calls and late newscasts. They shared reminiscences about the place, worried about its future, shot photos of the lurid spectacle, or just stood silently in emotional semi-shock.

"I was at a friend's party on Queen Anne," relates Speakeasy P.R. rep Kat Oak. "I got a call on the phone from somebody who said, 'Guess what? The Speakeasy's up in flames.' I said, 'It's a joke, right?' He said, 'Go look on the TV right now.' It was a major shock, to say the least."

By 1:00 a.m., some Speakeasy employees gathered back at the Lava Lounge. A couple of them even shared conspiracy theories about what, or even who, could have started the fire. By Monday morning, though, it was clear that the fire was caused by a simple electrical accident on the under-construction second floor.

The Speakeasy, which first opened six years ago this month, was Seattle's first Internet cafe. It offered espresso drinks, meals, snacks, and a bank of PCs connected to a single T1 line. That was one of the fattest, fastest Internet connections available at the time. (The Speakeasy's servers and lines are housed at a different location, and so were not damaged in the fire.) The cafe was intended from the start to be more than just a refuge for e-mailers and gamers. It was a gathering place for real communities as well as virtual ones. Speakeasy's 5,000-square-foot space (half the main floor of a two-story-and-basement building) hosted art openings, political rallies (including WTO teach-ins), eclectic music shows in the backroom theater space (all ages at first, until the liquor authorities balked at the beer and wine being sold in the front room), experimental film screenings, plays, and comedy shows (including, most recently, Mike Daisey's one-man show about his Amazon.com employee misadventures).

The Internet side of the operation, meanwhile, created websites for many local progressive groups, and also hosted many other folks' sites. It acquired dozens of surplus "dumb terminals" (text-only monitors and keyboards) and installed them at coffeehouses and hangout spots throughout the city, where (for $10 a month) computerless people could exchange e-mail messages and read the text portions of websites.

Over the years, the cafe (while still a popular gathering place) became a relatively minor side operation to the company's $18 million Internet business, Speakeasy.net, which moved into the former AHA! Theatre space down the street. Only 10 of Speakeasy's 140 employees work at the cafe. Speakeasy.net now offers dial-up and high-speed DSL Internet accounts in over 20 U.S. cities, and has over 140 employees.

Meal service at the cafe was dropped in favor of standard espresso-house snacks. Rock acts were ousted from the backroom (after complaints from the former 211 Billiard Club upstairs) in favor of less loud and/or more esoteric acts. Owners Mike and Gretchen Apgar even talked in 1999 about shutting the cafe altogether. Instead, late last year they acquired the leases on the rest of the building (including the former Seattle Building Salvage store next door and the former 211 Billiard Club space). At the time of the fire, renovation work had begun putting Speakeasy's DSL customer-support offices in the upstairs and turning the whole downstairs into an expanded cafe with full meal and liquor service.

So what's going to happen to the place now?

As of this writing, nobody knows.

Speakeasy had insurance on its interior contents. Preliminary structural reports show the building to be basically sound. Amazingly, the cafe itself suffered little more than heavy water damage. Indeed, while two of the 211's vintage pool tables (which Speakeasy had acquired) were charred and may be irreparable, the rest of the former 211 space had been cleared out in preparation for the office makeover. Very little work had been done in the former Building Salvage space.

"The structure is still fairly sound," according to Oak. "The façade and everything, the beams and stuff are still well intact. It would require some gutting, but it's not where it could be easily said, 'Let's raze the building.'''

"We have as yet not made any decisions regarding the future of that space or the rebuild of the cafe," Apgar said Monday. "These are largely contingent on the building owners' decision." The owners, according to Oak, have 30 days to announce any plans for the building.

The building owners (who are making no public comments yet) might conceivably use the fire as an excuse to put up some high-rise condo or office project, possibly preserving a little of the building's outer façade. That possibility is, for now, just speculation. But if it's attempted, it'll be a whole community's tempers that might be set ablaze.

Support The Stranger