A year ago this month, downtown Olympia’s Oyster House, a historic restaurant and landmark that overlooks Percival Landing, was destroyed in a fiery blaze.
When it burned, concerns were raised about a downturn in business in that immediate area, but also about how it would affect tourism because the restaurant is so often the subject of visitor inquiries.
But there was another, perhaps unspoken concern: would the Oyster House become another burned out building on Fourth Avenue and remain that way for years to come?
That will not be the case because the owners and managers of the business – Tom and Leticia Barrett – vowed the day it burned to rebuild and are now aiming for an opening date of July 20.
Construction might be done before then – Greg Bailey of Bailey General Contractors of Lacey said he wanted to complete the work before the one-year anniversary of the fire -- but the restaurant still needs to train its employees, said Leticia Barrett during a tour of the business this month.
That means the business could open as early as the 19th or it might open the following week, she said.
“We have to be prepared and open it to our standards,” she said.
But once it does reopen, customers will enter an entirely new restaurant that feels like the place it was before. For example, they have re-created the historic look of the dining tables that were previously used by the business, and the exterior walls have been painted a light yellow, just like they were before it burned.
Diners also can expect to see some familiar employees, along with some new ones, as well as the neon lighting that rimmed the building.
A year off, too, has given the Barretts time to think about the menu, meal presentation and the “execution of our plates,” Leticia Barrett said.
The menu hasn’t changed that much – oysters will still be well represented – and customers can expect a more comfortable waiting area, including the addition of a decorative aquarium. But it’s only for looks, Barrett said, and not for the Catch of the Day.
And once it reopens, they expect a full house of customers – just like the business had before it burned.
The Oyster House caught fire during last year’s Capital Lakefair, the annual summer festival that makes for a busy time downtown and along the city’s waterfront.
But the fire became the attention-grabbing event that week, destroying a majority of the building and causing $1.2 million in damages -- $800,000 in property damage and $400,000 in damages to the contents of the building, according to an Olympia Fire Department incident report about the blaze.
But before the building caught fire just after midnight Friday, it was business as usual for the restaurant.
Rich Barrett, Tom Barrett’s son and the manager of the restaurant, told fire investigators that everything was fine when he left the business at about 10:30 p.m. Thursday.
He double-checked the cookline to make sure everything was turned off, and the last thing he did was to set the burglar alarm.
“He went home and was sleeping in bed when Thurston County dispatch called to tell him that his restaurant was on fire. He then drove to the fire scene,” according to the report.
The fire investigation initially focused on towels in a dryer.
Barrett told investigators that a load of towels had been run in the dryer before he left that night, but he wasn’t exactly sure when and he wasn’t sure if the towels had been removed. On previous occasions, though, towels would start to smolder and smoke if they weren’t taken out of the dryer, he said.
But laboratory evidence would eventually point investigators in another direction, the evidence showing “that there was no fire caused from either the towels in the dryer drum or from an electrical malfunction.”
“The lab conclusion is that an excess buildup of lint in the ducting behind the dryer was most likely overheated and probably ignited, causing the fire,” the report states.
That’s another change for the business, owner Tom Barrett said. A new dryer has been put in an area of the building that will help it exhaust quickly, avoiding the need for a long vent, he said.
The Oyster House restaurant dates to the early 1920s and has had several owners over the years.
Barrett, a veteran restaurant operator who has run several Dairy Queen businesses throughout the Northwest, including in Olympia, bought the Oyster House property and business in 1996. The business was closed at the time and was in need of a remodel, something he undertook then and then again this year following the fire.
“It’s a hard way to remodel, but I guess it had to be done,” he said.
Amid the hustle and bustle of construction and the whine of a worker’s drill earlier this month, Barrett and his wife, Leticia, praised the city of Olympia for expediting their building plans. They also praised their insurer, Liberty Mutual, and their suppliers, who have been waiting patiently for the business to reopen. Among them is Taylor Shellfish of Shelton.
Taylor spokesman Bill Dewey said the Oyster House is one of many restaurants they sell shellfish to, but it also has symbolic importance as a longtime purveyor of oysters in the community.
“We’re pleased to see their commitment to rebuilding and continuing that history,” he said.
Downtown Ambassador Program manager Rob Richards said there’s a lot of pride associated with a business like the Oyster House that has been a downtown fixture for so long.
The program he oversees involves teams of people who make themselves available downtown to answer questions and provide information to visitors and residents.
If someone is looking for a seafood restaurant, the Oyster House is among those restaurants that visitors can be referred to, he said.
“When I heard they were rebuilding, I was excited,” said Richards, who, at first, was concerned that the Oyster House building would become another burned out structure on Fourth Avenue, similar to what happened with the former Griswold’s Office Supply & Equipment building.
That building burned down 10 years ago and is still awaiting a major remodel.
The Oyster House, in its absence, has been missed, said George Sharp, executive director of the Olympia Lacey Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau.
“Since the fire, we have had people on a daily basis stop at the Visitor Information Center on the Capitol Campus and ask us where it is, if it’s still in business or if it’s reopened yet,” Sharp said in an email.
Even in Vancouver, B.C., during his participation in the Northwest Travel Expo, Sharp said several people shared their memories of Olympia and the Oyster House.
“We look forward to welcoming the Oyster House back as part of our restaurant family in Thurston County,” he said.