A building that has stood in downtown Jackson for 109 years was minutes away from burning to the ground early Tuesday morning.
When firefighters responded to a blaze at the Cafe Genevieve log cabin, flames had engulfed the back part of the building and a neighboring pine tree.
“I was just worried that we’d lost everything,” Cafe Genevieve owner Fred Peightal said. “Thankfully it was caught quickly, and it was just basically some exterior and smoke damage in the kitchen area.”
The street-facing facade and dining area dodged irreparable harm as firefighters conquered the fire before it could escape beyond the back-of-house kitchen and a backyard shed.
“It could have been way worse,” Peightal said.
Following the fire, the popular restaurant will close its doors indefinitely. At the same time, the Jackson Hole Land Trust is in the midst of a community fundraising campaign to preserve the cabin alongside other historic buildings and open space on the Broadway block.
The fire came as a shock to the Land Trust and its partners in the “Save the Block” project, which is seeking to raise $7.5 million to purchase easements that permanently protect the block’s historic character and green space. Land Trust President Laurie Andrews said the fire allowed the community a chance to reflect on what was almost lost, and what still could be lost if “Save the Block” doesn’t succeed.
“It just makes me sick to my stomach,” Andrews said. “It made me really emotional that we could actually lose something on that block. If anything, this just struck a chord that this is more important than ever, and this block means so much to us and we can’t lose any part of it.”
A man who said he was working nearby noticed the fire in the middle of the night and called 911 around 3 a.m. Tuesday. Jayann Carlisle, who delivers the Jackson Hole Daily around town in the wee hours of the morning, pulled over when she saw the blaze on her delivery route.
“We were watching from across the street and could feel the heat,” Carlisle said. “Police officers were trying to kick down the door, and at Persephone, to make sure no one was in there.”
Carlisle used her cellphone to capture a video of the fire and police entering the building, seen above.
A quick save
Firefighters were on the scene shortly after and were able to go into the attic and knock down the fire within about 10 minutes, Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen said. Hansen called the fire “intense” and said it most likely started in an outdoor area between a shed and the kitchen.
The shed on the back of the property that the restaurant used as storage is a “total loss,” fire officials said.
“The door was closed between the kitchen and the dining area, so that saved the dining area from smoke damage,” Hansen said.
When the sun rose Tuesday morning, yellow tape cordoned off the cabin as gaping tourists surveyed the damage. Fire investigators were still on the scene Tuesday afternoon trying to determine how the fire started.
“It’s a slow and meticulous process,” Hansen said.
Firefighters requested a state fire marshal to assist in the investigation into the fire’s exact cause. That team included an arson dog, although Hansen said he would not classify the blaze as “suspicious.”
Sasha, the only arson dog in the state, gave an indication on some charred kitchen rags behind Cafe Genevieve, Capt. Stephanie Schofield said. But the rags will have to be tested at the state lab to determine what type of chemical the working dog smelled.
“We don’t suspect arson, but we can’t rule anything out yet,” Hansen said. “This is an important structure to our community. There is significant damage, but we’re happy we didn’t lose the whole structure.”
The cause of the fire had not yet been determined as of press time Tuesday night. Fire Marshal Kathy Clay said investigators will continue working at the scene Wednesday morning.
Cafe Genevieve owners said they haven’t been able to assess the scope of the damage.
“We’re not sure the extent of it yet because we haven’t been able to get in there,” Peightal said.
Built in 1910, the structure was originally the homestead of Roy and Genevieve Van Vleck and is one of Jackson’s oldest buildings. Genevieve Van Vleck was a member of Jackson’s first-ever all-woman Town Council in 1920. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in September 1995.
In its century on Broadway Avenue, this isn’t the building’s first fire. The front page of the Jan. 25, 1989, Jackson Hole News featured a story on a fire that “gutted” what was then Jedediah’s Original House of Sourdough, destroying the kitchen area and attic, and even melting the restaurant’s famous 100-year-old sourdough starter. Someone driving past the restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday spotted the fire and drove to the fire station a few blocks away to report it at 7:20 p.m.
After landowner Abi Garaman spent substantial time and money restoring the structure, Jedediah’s reopened about 11 months later, the News reported. Garaman also moved the building closer to Town Square, expanded the kitchen and added a basement, deck and fireplace.
The portion of the kitchen that was expanded in the 1980s was damaged in Tuesday’s fire, meaning none of the original historic building was compromised, Teton County Historic Preservation Board Chair Katherine Wonson said, which is “good news.”
“If anything, it makes people more passionate and concerned, and it makes you realize how fragile these resources are,” Wonson said. “I think what this’ll prompt — we’ll see a reinvestment in these buildings and therefore probably some upgrading of systems and things that’ll be good for the building in the long term.”
Peightal, and property owner representative Jeff Golightly, said they are both pursuing insurance claims.
“Unfortunately, it’s not gonna be a quick fix,” Golightly said. “There’s enough damage in the back to where it looks like it’s going to take some time to return it. But the historic portion of the building is still intact, and the restaurant in the front actually looks great. You can’t really tell much happened there.”
Peightal said he is hopeful insurance can cover the cost of retaining Cafe Genevieve’s 58 employees in the interim.
“We are well covered, and they should be taken care of in the time period where we have to be closed,” Peightal said.
Peightal said the owners have received “a lot of goodwill from the community,” and even tourists who have eaten at the restaurant for years. He also said town of Jackson staff is supportive in helping with reconstruction plans.
“Things happen,” he said. “It’s always a little dark before the light comes. I think we’re gonna be alright.”