Thursday, November 27, 2008

US 20 in New York: Vintage Diner Relocated

Here’s a story from the Schenectady Daily Gazette covering the relocation of a vintage diner to a location on US Route 20 at Route 406 in Princetown, NY. (Princetown is just east of Schenectady, NY.) Route 20 is called the Western Turnpike in that area. (If you click on the link to the Daily Gazette article, you can find a picture of the diner.)

Vintage diner to be operated at new location on Route 20
By Justin Mason Gazette Reporter

Crews used an industrial crane to hoist the 38-foot-long and 17-foot-wide structure onto a foundation off Route 20 Wednesday morning. They used a bar on top and cables beneath to suspend the forlorn-looking silver diner several feet in the air before effortlessly placing it on a pair of steel I-beams set into the concrete.

“It was just like a toy,” said owner Tom Ketchum, surveying the nearly 23-ton diner on its new base.

The diner car sat on blocks near Ketchum’s autobody repair shop for more than a year after it was hauled 630 miles from a warehouse in Michigan. Built by the Mountain View Diner Co. factory in New Jersey during the mid-1950s, the restaurant once served Champagne, Ill., where it was one of the early pioneers to sell Col. Harland Sanders’ legendary fried chicken.

Now, with the diner secured and all the necessary town approvals in hand, Ketchum and his wife Sally plan to continue the arduous task of restoring the eatery to its former grandeur. By next spring, they intend to open a full-service restaurant that will include authentic 1950s-era equipment and furnishings the couple has collected from across the nation.

This includes an authentic M-100 Seaburg jukebox Ketchum found in Detroit. He spent the past year restoring the player so it spins vinyl 45s as if it were new.

And consider the stainless steel foyer that once greeted customers when the diner operated in Champagne. Ketchum tracked down the dismantled pieces that had sat in storage since the last incarnation of the diner closed in 2002.

They acquired a pie case and ice cream parlor from the American Diner Museum in Rhode Island. Everything in the diner will be from the period when it flourished, Ketchum said.

“Everything in there will be real 1950s, not make-believe 1950s,” he said. “I sat on the Internet every day looking for what I wanted and what I could afford to buy.”

Ketchum even managed to track down the massive neon cowboy sign that stood outside the diner when it was first opened in 1956. When word about the diner’s revival spread, they were contacted by a former patron of the restaurant living in California, who offered the sign to them.

Ketchum said the woman had frequented the diner during college and purchased the sign as a memento when its original owners closed it in 1976. She initially intended to hang the sign in her West Coast art studio, but ended up stowing it in her mother’s garage in Illinois after learning it wouldn’t fit.

The authentic sign was oddly one of the holdups the Ketchums faced when seeking approvals from the Princetown Planning Commission. The 10-foot-by-8-foot sign far exceeded the allowed size in the town code.

Town officials were also slightly bewildered by the nature of the diner project. After all, Ketchum explained, it’s not often someone comes in with a project that includes a diner that’s already built.

“There are no plans for it,” he said. “This is an existing building.”

But after several months of meetings the town approved both the project and a zoning variance this fall, allowing the Ketchums to dig the foundation, move the diner and keep the sign. Now, he plans to complete an addition on the rear of the structure and finish renovating the original, including the neon sign, which he’s looking for help to restore.

The Ketchums have made a good deal of progress since the diner arrived last year. He’s restored some sections of the interior and all of the booths are now being reupholstered. Ketchum is also painstakingly removing rotted sections of wood beneath the stainless steel exterior.

“We didn’t dare do anything else until the diner was set,” he said.

Ketchum said moving the diner to its foundation is a large step in the right direction and one people are already starting to notice. Prior to the move, he said many people didn’t even realize he was doing work to restore the restaurant.

Several hours after the move, contractor Bob Frost poked his head in the diner to compliment the Ketchums on their progress. Earlier this month, he helped excavate for the foundation.

“It looks a lot better just sitting on the foundation,” he said.

The US Route 20 Blog homepage can be found here.

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