Pizza Ranch still a work in progress
By ANDREW MCGINN
Nearly two years after arson closed Jefferson’s Pizza Ranch, insulation in the ceiling still smells like the coat of someone who’s been sitting around a campfire.
“But multiply it by 1,000,” city building inspector Nick Sorensen said recently.
Two winters later, the Jefferson Fire Department still wins high praise for ultimately foiling a scheme the night of Jan. 26, 2016, to burn the century-old downtown building at 206 N. Wilson Ave. to the ground.
“So much credit to our fire department for saving the restaurant,” Sorensen said. “That could have easily been like Larry’s.”
If you’re new to town, just know that Larry’s is now the site of a vacant lot a few doors down.
But while local firefighters saved the Pizza Ranch building from flames, the battle against smoke damage is still far from over.
The city of Jefferson took ownership last March of the building in hopes of returning it to private ownership, much like it did with the mold-riddled building on Lincoln Way that has since become home to Sensibly Chic.
“I have had calls,” Sorensen said when asked about interest in the Pizza Ranch building.
The city in June hired Murphy Construction at a cost of $25,200 to take the interior of the Pizza Ranch building to the studs, removing drywall, floor coverings and even the former restaurant’s appliances.
Sorensen said he hoped to be able to salvage the studs — but even those must now go.
“I’m going to take it down to the brick,” he said.
The city has been doing demolition work on its own, when staff can make time, to cut down on costs, Sorensen explained.
It’s his goal to erase any reminder of that January night in 2016 — unfortunately, the human olfactory system is pretty darn acute.
“When we first started, it was absolutely terrible,” Sorensen said of the smell. “With each demo day, it’s getting better and better.”
Sorensen’s next challenge is removing the insulation that has the smell of smoke trapped in it between the building’s historic tin ceiling and roof.
The building at 206 N. Wilson Ave. was originally built around the turn of the 20th century as three separate storefronts with a decorative ceiling of tin tiles — an element exposed by the fire and ensuing demolition.
Murphy Construction this past summer removed a present-day drop-down ceiling.
Sorensen’s new dilemma: Removing the insulation without dismantling the antique tin ceiling.
“The tins are pretty fragile,” he said.
Taking the tin tiles down is labor intensive, and putting them back up is like assembling a puzzle.
On tin tiles damaged by the fire, a soda blast — similar to sandblasting, only using baking soda — should restore their appearance, according to Sorensen.
The 2016 fire struck a chord with many locals, regardless of whether they were regular Pizza Ranch customers, in large part because the blaze could have consumed an entire city block.
Restaurant owner Robert Schultz, of Ankeny, who was more than $400,000 in debt at the time of the fire, avoided prison in December 2016 on a charge of first-degree arson by taking an Alford plea — a guilty plea in which a defendant doesn’t admit to a crime, but acknowledges a jury could convict him.
He was given three years’ probation.
No other arrests were made in the case.
Still, it’s very likely the Pizza Ranch saga will have a happy ending.
For starters, the roof is still good and the subfloor is still usable.