Almost three months after The Club Moderne was gutted by fire, owners Stephanie and John Hekkel say they're going to rebuild the circa-1930s Art Deco bar in Anaconda. Rebuilding efforts are already underway, and the couple says many people in the community have contributed to the restoration in ways that have left them feeling deeply touched. For the Hekkels, rebuilding the bar is worth it because it has long served as an important cultural center in the town.
'The most devastating thing to happen to Anaconda'
If you ask Anacondans where they were on the night of Oct. 3, 2016, many will likely say they were standing on the corner of Park Avenue and Ash Street, watching in disbelief as The Club Moderne was engulfed by fire.
The fire was discovered around 8:30 p.m. when John Hekkel and about 10 patrons heard crackling noises and saw smoke descending from the ceiling. After one patron tried to put the fire out with an extinguisher, more smoke appeared, and that's when everyone ran out of the bar and Hekkel called 911.
Hekkel later discovered the fire was caused by a transformer connected to the bar's neon sign, which became hot after being struck by leaking water.
Anaconda resident EG Leipheimer arrived at the corner of Park and Ash early on in the night.
"I cried," Leipheimer told The Montana Standard the day after the fire. "This is the most devastating thing to happen to Anaconda in the 30-some years that I've been here."
Victor Zenahlik was also on the scene.
A captain with the Anaconda Fire Department, he was one of the firefighters tasked with putting out the blaze.
Zenahlik said The Club Moderne fire was particularly difficult to fight because of the building's 1930s construction and successive renovations to the ceiling over the years, which left gaps and hollows that helped fuel the fire.
Zenahlik said The Club Moderne was a favorite watering hole among police and firefighters, so much so that initiation for firefighters involved memorizing The Club Moderne address. He said he never anticipated one day he'd actually be fighting a fire at 801 E. Park Ave. and that he felt "heartbroken" and "sickened" when he got the call.
"It was a big shock for everybody in the community," he said.
But perhaps the person most in shock was Hekkel, who had owned the bar since 1997.
With a dark hoodie pulled over his head and a shovel in hand, Hekkel helped firefighters clean up debris the day after the fire. He was approached by the Standard for an interview but only shook his head, indicating that he wasn't going to talk.
According to Stephanie, on the night of the fire, John remained at the bar until 4 a.m., when family members implored him to come home.
But on Friday when Hekkel spoke with the Standard at Barclay II — another establishment in Anaconda owned by the Hekkels — he was in good spirits.
He expressed gratitude for the efforts of firefighters and said he was thankful no one was hurt. Just a half-hour before the fire was discovered, Hekkel said, about 30 people were in the bar celebrating a birthday. He said he was glad they left when they did.
Hekkel said failing to rebuild The Club Moderne was never an option and the desire to rebuild was almost immediate.
"There's no way I could drive down the street and not see The Club Moderne," said Hekkel.
To outsiders, it may seem silly to make such a fuss about one bar in one tiny corner of the world.
But many Anacondans will likely tell you: The Club Moderne is more than just a favorite watering hole.
A landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, the bar was first owned by John "Skinny" Francisco. He commissioned architect Fred F. Willson to design the bar in a "Streamline Moderne style," an offshoot of Art Deco.
The Hekkels described Skinny as a world traveler who likely came up with the design after visiting establishments across the country and globe.
For many people the word "Art Deco" conjures images of New York skyscrapers and "The Great Gatsby," with its ritzy parties, elegant women, and sounds of jazz.
Perhaps living up to its Art Deco style, The Club Moderne was a high-end place in its early days.
According to Kathleen Francisco — who purchased the bar with her husband Jack Francisco (Skinny's nephew) in the 1970s — bartenders used to serve cocktails while wearing ties and white linen shirts while an organist came on the weekends to play music for people on the dance floor.
"It was an upscale place," Hekkel said. "People went there to take their wife for a nice drink, and there was no riffraff."
But aside from bringing a modern edge to the Smelter City, The Club Moderne also brought people together.
The Hekkels said generations of families came to the bar, including two of Anaconda's Irish families, the Kellys and the McCarthys.
Eddie McCarthy loved The Club Moderne so much he stopped by for a drink on his wedding night in 1959 with his wife, still wearing her wedding dress.
McCarthy never went through the experience of watching The Club Moderne in flames. He passed away in October 2015, and his family gave the Hekkels a photo of McCarthy and his wife at The Club Moderne on their wedding day.
The photo hung on the wall behind the bar, said Hekkel's daughter Vatore, and was one of the few objects that survived the fire.
Life after death
Vatore said losing The Club Moderne was like losing a family member. But through the act of rebuilding, she said, it seemed as though the lost family member could be brought back to life.
The Hekkels started the rebuilding shortly after the fire and have a goal of completing the restoration by St. Patrick's Day, weather permitting.
Repairs include, among others, new roofing, electrical, plumbing, heating, insulation, walls, flooring, and bar equipment. The family will also need to restore the booths, back bar, and bar, all of which survived the fire but need some TLC, the Hekkels said. They added that they're trying to keep the bar as close as possible to what it was before.
The Hekkels said they've cried their way throughout the whole process but have shed more happy tears than sad because of the support they've received from the community.
Vatore said two days after the fire, off-shift firemen came to The Club Moderne to help clean up, while Stephanie said many Anacondans have donated their money, supplies, and time, especially Hekkel's brothers-in-law Kevin Fuller and Rob Verlanic. The family also received small grants from Anaconda's Downtown Tax Increment Financing District and the Anaconda Local Development Corporation.
"Overwhelming. I mean, it just brings a tear to my eye," said Hekkel when asked how it feels to receive so much community support.
"You spend a lot of days crying, I think, over little things," said Stephanie. "Anaconda kind of takes care of its own."
The Club Moderne's original solid mahogany bar did survive but has a few burn marks here and there.
"They'll add character," John said — and they'll add a few more pages to the story of The Club Moderne, which now has plenty more chapters to be written.