Route 66 in the News

Restored Cafe a Hit

2009-08-06 21:10:22

ATLANTA, Ill. - The brick facade was collapsing. The interior was stripped to the studs. The business district of Atlanta, Illinois was just about dead.

Yet instead of burying what was once a thriving rural community, Bill Thomas decided history could use a jolt. Teaming up with a band of contractors, community members and a grainy photograph, Bill Thomas brought Atlanta back to life, with a little help from the folks at Wilsonart.

This once thriving town along famed U.S. Route 66, Atlanta had certainly seen better days. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower's highway infrastructure became a reality in the 1950s, towns like Atlanta were dying off. One by one, these communities succumbed to their forecasted fate -- ghosts of America's past, towns left behind like tombstones in a prairie cemetery. Thomas knew his town deserved better, and so he took on the task of revitalizing this rusted out stop along Route 66.

First matter of business, getting the downtown block listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The multiple story, brick front buildings were originally constructed in the 1860s. Home to a handful of businesses over the years, the memory of one 'tenant' was the driving force behind Thomas' triumphant vision.

Cafe a natural gathering place The Palms Grill Cafe was a cozy little diner that served not only hot meals to locals and tourists, but also stood at the town's Greyhound Bus stop. Just blocks away, passenger trains would let weary travelers off for a bite to eat. Over time, the trains just passed through; traffic all but dried up. Thomas' new cafe would be the catalyst to Atlanta's rise from the Route 66 ashes.

"When (the Atlanta library) got the building, they were looking for ways to support their activities. I said, 'If we put a cafe back in there and did it right, historically accurate, we'd be able to raise money," Thomas said over a cup of steaming hot coffee. "The only trouble was we had just the one photo to work with."

Documenting a greasy spoon pit stop must not have been a priority to local residents. Thomas had just one period (circa 1930s) photograph, a grainy glimpse into the past. While the smiling wait staff and customers offered a lovely portrait, it did little to outline how the cafe was laid out. Blueprints? Not available. Floor plans? Non-existent. So, to maintain historical accuracy, Thomas had to get creative.

"One of the local residents worked at the grill as a teenager," Thomas recalled. "Bill Johnson, 88, still has a great memory. We'd call him up and say, 'Bill, where did this go? What color was this?' He was pivotal in recreating the 'Palm'."

In what turned out to be a six-year undertaking, Thomas and his team worked tirelessly to reconstruct the Palm's Grill Cafe. The striking centerpiece of the old cafe was a 30-foot long solid marble countertop. With a total budget just shy of $500,000, Thomas knew installing real stone would not be financially feasible.

"Wilsonartís Custom Laminate Division said they could actually duplicate (the original stone pattern). We sent (a small remaining chunk) down to Texas, they digitized it, and sent me proofs back. Wilsonart worked at great lengths to make sure the grain you see on the countertop doesn't repeat too often so that it looks natural. I was exceptionally pleased with the outcome."

So, with the 30-foot laminate countertop in place, Thomas was able to re-open the Palms Grill Cafe in late April. Just a few weeks behind schedule, but with results that exceeded expectations.

"I've been very obsessive about making sure everything looked right. To have it replicated so well and so precisely made the difference in my mind between the project succeeding and not succeeding."

Judging by the reaction on opening day, the Palms Grill Cafe has brought not only life back to Atlanta, Ill., but some much needed flavor as well.

~Dave Sniadak, via


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