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Ready to rebuild

Wednesday, October 15, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:06 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Two ceramic tigers and four German beer steins are the only relics that survived the early-morning blaze back in August. Even the well-known red-brick façade must now be torn down.

“Everything else was charred or not worth saving,” said Rusty Walls, whose family has owned The Olde Heidelberg for 40 years. “That’s all I’ve got left from it.”

Poised to start over, Rusty, his brother, Richard Jr., and their father, Dick, are preparing to rebuild the tavern that has been a landmark campus alehouse since it first opened in 1963.

Taking the lead on the project is Rusty, 36, who will take his first crack at building a restaurant from scratch. While planning efforts are, as he put it, “nerve-racking,” Walls said he feels additional pressure to make the new ’Berg just like the old one.

“Everybody wants the same feeling of the old place,” he said. “I’d much rather be running it right now. We don’t want to make it any different from the way it was, but I think it’s going to work out OK.”

Walls recently shared the plans for the new place, which retains much of the look and feel, if not the smell, of his father’s tavern. However, when completed, The Olde Heidelberg will have a new twist — a rooftop patio with space for about 20 tables. The addition will expand the restaurant’s capacity by more than 50 percent, to nearly 300 people.

“We’ve always kind of wanted a roof patio and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do it,” said Richard Walls, Jr., whose family also owns the Boone Tavern in Columbia, Sir Winston’s Restaurant & Pub in Fulton and the Millstone Lodge on the Lake of the Ozarks.

Blueprints for the new 5,200-square-foot restaurant and bar call for a slightly larger kitchen and larger bathrooms, booths and tables for about 100 people, a rear game room with dartboards and a new jukebox. Rusty Walls said that patrons who haven’t been in the ’Berg for a while “might notice it’s different, but you wouldn’t be able to say exactly what.”

Columbia architect John Simon, of Simon Associates, said he hopes to submit plans to the city by the end of this week. Pending approval, Rusty Walls expects construction to begin in November for an anticipated grand re-opening this February or March. Little Dixie Construction LLC, will be in charge of the project, which Walls estimates will cost $800,000.

The Olde Heidelberg was gutted Aug. 18 by an early-morning blaze, which took nearly three hours for 70 firefighters to knock down. Investigators later traced the fire to faulty electrical wiring in the ceiling area above the kitchen’s breaker panels. No injuries were reported in what local fire officials said was one of the biggest fires in Columbia in nearly six years.

Rusty Walls said insurance will cover reconstruction costs and most of the family’s losses from the blaze, which caused an estimated $1 million in damage. Having lost one of his childhood hangouts, Walls said he is trying to make the best of a bad situation. He hopes that once construction begins on the new building, he’ll forget how much it hurt to lose the old one.

“I’ve been around it as long as I can remember,” he said.

One signature feature that the Walls family could not salvage was the tavern’s red-brick façade, damaged so heavily by the fire that what’s left will have to be knocked down. That might allow ’Berg lovers to collect a piece of the tavern’s history for themselves.

Dick Walls said he is looking into the possibility of selling bricks from the front façade as mementos to raise money for the MU Hotel and Restaurant Management Program. He floated the idea of garnishing each brick with commemorative plaques inscribed with the name of the old tavern, its years in business or possibly the date of the fire, he said.

“Homecoming would be a great time to do it when all of the alumni are back in town,” he said.

Richard Walls Jr. said he and his brother Rusty someday hope to buy their father’s share of the restaurant and run it themselves. Hoping to keep the place as a family heirloom, their father rejected several offers to buy the ’Berg’s lot at 410 S. Ninth St. in the fire’s aftermath, Rusty Walls said.

“If (our father) didn’t have two sons to run it for the next 20 years, he might feel differently,” Rusty Walls said. “But he’s owned it for 40 years and it’s kind of his first. He wants to see it up and running again.”


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