The Eldon Philly Diner is a scorched shell of its former self, but the owners of Randles Court said they are far from done with the property where the locally beloved diner stood.
Randles Court owners, husband and wife Jeremy and Jennifer Hart, said they intend to renovate the 4th Street motel adjacent to the diner, which was saved from an Aug. 28 blaze with relatively minor smoke damage, thanks to the efforts of 54 firefighters from 10 departments.
"The firemen set a goal (between the motel and diner) and said they wouldn't let the fire cross that line," Jeremy said. "It was really impressive. It's good to know they were fighting for us."
Jeremy said the firefighters broke through parts of the motel's ceiling to release smoke and heat, which saved the structure from severe damage.
As for the diner, time will tell what direction the Harts will take for the space after they have the motel up and running again.
The Harts own and operate Mid Missouri Commercial Cleaning. They had planned to subsist off their cleaning business and use motel profits to renovate it a room at a time. Now, they need every available room renovated and up to code before the motel can reopen.
"I will not open the doors until it's up to our standards," Jennifer said. "Our goal will be to target people who are looking for that historical value."
The Tuscumbia couple envision a business that is part museum, part motel, with informational displays of the court's rich history extending almost 90 years.
Jennifer said they want to have five to seven rooms renovated and ready for business by the end of the year. They intend to design the motel based on 1930s and '40s decor and are working with Eldon contractor SPI Enterprises on the plans.
Jennifer, a history buff, said she enjoys researching the court's history. The couple decided to purchase the property after she worked as the motel's part-time bookkeeper for two years.
"We wouldn't have had any idea that we wanted to buy it if I hadn't been doing the books," she said. "I fell in love with the property. It was built in the 1930s, and so just restoring the historical feel was what we wanted to do."
According to her research, Randles Court initially opened as Loyd A. Boots Super Service Station, Cafe and Cottage Court while Bagnell Dam was being completed. Jennifer said Boots originally built a gas station where the Eldon Philly Diner stood.
"There was nowhere at the (Lake of the Ozarks) to stay," Jennifer said. "The lake didn't exist, and so people came to go see the dam, and that will be part of our history."
The business was the sibling of Boots Court at the "crossroads of America" — the intersection of Route 66 and Route 71 in Carthage — which was owned by Boots' brother, Arthur Boots.
The Eldon property was renamed Randles Court after Loyd Boots divorced from his wife, Helen Randles, who retained ownership of the court. Jennifer has come into possession of Randles' old room keys, business documents and personal letters, which will be added to the historical display.
Jeremy's aunt, Donna Presta, owned Randles Court from the mid-1970s until her death in 2011. The property went into probate after her death, and the Harts began the process of purchasing it July 2016. They were granted permission to buy the property from the courts a year later and had a closing date set for Aug. 30. The Eldon Philly Diner burned two days before they were to become the new landlords.
Despite the devastating setback, the Harts are determined to carry on with their plans to renovate the motel and officially closed on Randles Court on Sept. 12. Jennifer said she is trying to look at the otherwise heartbreaking situation as a fresh start.
When they arrived at the fire, the Harts saw Eldon police officer Justin Romito, who was first to see the fire and awoke everyone at the motel.
"We got here, walked up to him and told him who we were, that we were supposed to close on it in two days. He said, 'Fire can be cleansing, and it allows for new growth.' We've hung on to that. It gave me hope," Jennifer said with tears in her eyes.
"His lips to God's ears," Jeremy concluded.