Oak Park gay club burns, fire seen as suspicious

Updated June 6 at 5:25 p.m.  

A fire destroyed The Velvet Rope Ultra Lounge, an Oak Park gay nightclub in what the owner suspects as an anti-gay arson early Sunday morning.

The fire broke out in the club at 728 Lake St. around 6 a.m. and ultimately gutted the interior, which can be seen from the street.

Firefighters responded to the scene of the fire around 6:30 a.m. and were able to extinguish the flames in minutes. Businesses on both sides of the bar sustained smoke and water damage, but no injuries were reported, according to village officials.

Oak Park Police initially classified the blaze as “suspicious” and declined to provide any further details as of Monday morning, but later confirmed that there was probable cause to indicate that an act of arson may be behind the incident. They also noted that state fire marshals were called to the scene to investigate.

While police would not comment further on the cause of the fire, the owner, Frank Elliot, said authorities are calling the fire suspicious after reportedly finding the back door of the bar kicked in and derogatory messages written on the walls inside.

By Monday, the club had been boarded up.

Lyndon Stewart, who has worked at the Velvet Rope for three years, said what happened to the nightclub was shocking.

“I had just worked there the night before and was supposed to work that day but got a call from my boss telling me what happened,” Stewart said. “I was instantly concerned for my boss and especially my fellow co-workers. I was just worried we’d be out of a job. It was honestly stomach turning.”

Stewart said he’s never experienced any overt signs of homophobia in or around the bar other than immature comments and strange looks from youth in the area, and that he didn’t get a chance to see the anti-gay messages reportedly written on the walls.

“By the time I was able to go by the bar it had been boarded up,” he said. “I only heard from Frank that it had been covered up or removed before he could see any of it.”

The Oak Park Area Lesbian & Gay Association said they are naturally concerned about reports that the Velvet Rope was destroyed by arson and that they are also concerned about speculating that it was targeted because of its gay ownership and client base.

“We do want to express our concern for the owner, staff and customers of the Velvet Rope and look forward to learning more about the results of the investigations underway,” OPALGA Co-Chair, Greg Raub told Chicago Phoenix. “The Oak Park area has for many years been known for its diversity and welcoming environment and we look forward to continuing to help foster and support that environment.”

Oak Park activists, including Lair Scott, planned to hold a rally in support of Velvet Rope staff and to raise awareness about hate crimes at Scoville Park in July, but have since called it off.

“We’ve canceled our rally at Scoville Park until the investigation is complete,” said Scott.

Elliot said he intends to rebuild the club as soon as he can, but in the meantime will focus on a new venture, Bonsai Bar & Lounge, which is set to open “Spring 2012″ in Boystown at 3502 N. Halsted St., the old Leather Sport store location. The Bonsai website describes similar features and services as Velvet Rope and a similar staff listed.

Stewart said he’s been offered a job at Bonsai and intends to work there until the Velvet Rope can be reopened.

“I was happy to hear that Frank plans to reopen the Velvet Rope but I know it’s going to take a lot of time to get done,” Stewart said. “Right now the focus is going to be on getting the new bar up and running so we all have somewhere to work. Though once The Velvet Rope opens I am anxious to return to hosting Wednesday night Karaoke there again.”

Working in the city will be exciting, he added.

Oak Park, a primarily LGBT-friendly suburb held its 39th annual A Day in Our Village Festival Sunday, which celebrates diversity and community involvement there every year.

A fundraiser benefitting employees is planned for June 14 in Forest Park.

Police said an investigation is still underway.

Chicago Phoenix will continue to update as more information becomes available. Tony Merevick and Brynn Cassie West contributed reporting to this story.