by Christopher Martin

A Pennsylvania diner comes to Rhode Island.

This article originally appeared in the December 2002 issue of The Diner, the newsletter of the American Diner Museum.

The Lemoyne Diner as it looked in the 1940s. Postcard courtesy of the American Diner Museum.

Early this September, a new diner arrived in Providence. Well, new for Providence, anyway. It's the sixty-three-year-old Lemoyne Diner (serial number 1104), and after more than a decade of uncertainty, its future now looks as bright as freshly polished chrome.

The story of how it came to Providence begins in 1939 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where it was manufactured by the Jerry O'Mahony Company. It was bought by Robert "Stan" Viguers, who opened it in 1941 on Market Street in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania. Christened the Lemoyne Diner, the restaurant was a fixture on the west bank of the Susquehanna River for forty years, though Viguers sold it in 1954.

Closed in 1981, the diner was transported to a storage lot just off the Reeser's Summit exit of Interstate 83, fifteen miles north of York, Pennsylvania. There it sat until 1990, when it was purchased by Tom Kiefaber for $20,000. He had it moved to a spot next to his Senator Movie Theatre on the 5800 block of York Road in Baltimore, Maryland. His plan was to incorporate the diner into a larger eatery to be named the Nibble and Clink, but things didn't work out as expected, and the diner again sat idle, swaddled in a shroud of shrinkwrap, for more than ten years.

Fast forward to 2002 when, back in Providence, another diner, the El Faro on Atwells Avenue, was in dire need of a temporary home as the land under it had been sold for redevelopment. American Diner Museum Executive Director Daniel Zilka had recently had the good fortune to meet Richard V. Shappy, a Providence nightclub owner. Zilka asked Shappy if he would store the El Faro near his restoration shop on Charles Street, adjacent to one of his clubs, the Cadillac Lounge. Shappy agreed and the El Faro was moved there in mid-May.

Having the 1940s Kullman Challenger in his parking lot gave Shappy ideas. "I got to looking at it, and with all the people coming up telling me what a great idea it would be to have a diner right there... well, I certainly have room for it. And it looked magnificent with the neon... from my nightclub reflecting onto the stainless diner. I said, you know this is a natural for that." By the time Shappy tried to buy the El Faro, however, it had already been purchased, so he asked the American Diner Museum to locate another.

Aware of the inactive status of the Lemoyne Diner, Zilka suggested that Shappy get down to Baltimore to check it out. Shappy liked what he saw and soon struck a deal. He would have a complete World-War-II-era diner to restore and Kiefaber would seek alternative ways to outfit his Nibble and Clink restaurant with diner ambiance.

The Lemoyne left Baltimore at dawn on September 4, 2002, for its three-day, 370-mile trip. Aside from a delay in Connecticut due to new oversized load restrictions, the move went well. Once in Providence, the O'Mahony took the place of the Kullman at the Charles Street location. (The El Faro had already been moved to its new location on Westminster Street, where owners Crescent Partners, LLP, plan to restore it and open it as a working diner.)

By early October, Shappy's restoration crew had already begun preliminary work on their twenty-ton, fifty-foot-long project. Initial steps included running electricity to the building, supplying heat for the winter, and fixing leaks in the roof. The interior is mostly intact, but all of the tile work, mahogany framing, and some stainless steel needs to be refurbished or replaced. In addition, some welding needs to be done to strengthen the frame.

Shappy expects the job to take no more than a year, and if all the city paperwork goes smoothly, the new eatery, to be called the Cadillac Diner, will be open for business. The name is appropriate enough—not only does Shappy collect and restore Cadillacs (he owns at least 30), but according to Zilka, O'Mahonys "were considered the Cadillac of diners."

The Lemoyne isn't Mr. Shappy's only vintage acquisition. When the Veteran's Square Diner, in Warwick, was demolished at the end of August, Shappy was there to extract and truck away the core of the building, a 1911 Osgood Bradley electric trolley car. He had been looking for just such a trolley for years. "That's going to be a little more of a challenge," he said, "because of its rarity, and also because of what's missing. When they made it into a diner they cut each end of it, and a lot of the hardware is gone. The trucks, which are the wheels, those are missing; the controllers and a lot of the essential pieces to the operation of the trolley have disappeared." Shappy expects to do quite a lot of research before restoration can begin. As to what he'll do with it once he gets it back to pristine condition, he doesn't know. "It's like I'm a pilot and I'm flying without a flight plan!"

Shappy is not daunted by the work ahead on either the Lemoyne or the trolley car. With years of experience restoring antique automobiles, he understands the commitments that must be made and the hurdles that must be overcome to bring a classic piece of Americana back to life.

"I love taking old things and making them new. It's just something that I've been doing for a long time, and I enjoy the hell out of it. I'd rather do that than run a night club, but unfortunately the night club makes the dollars that're needed for this, because it's very expensive to do this, and it's all my own funds that are being used."

Richard Shappy's enthusiasm and excitement about these projects is obvious. "We're serious about doing this thing," he emphasizes.

The Lemoyne is sure to be a treasured addition to the Rhode Island diner pantheon. Thanks to the American Diner Museum, people like Richard Shappy, and all of the dedicated patrons, the classic American diner will never die.

Update: On January 2, 2005, Mr. Shappy wrote to tell us "I was really making progress on the diner until I ran into the roof problem. I have consulted with several different roof companies that had all expressed an interest in doing the project. Unfortunately, to date, the roof remains undone and winter is here. I have already spent a considerable sum of money in labor and restoration of the diner and plan to get more serious about finding the proper people to get that end of the restoration done as soon as the weather gets better. We have certainly not been inactive though... I did have a metal building constructed next to my office and have begun very extensive restoration on the former Veteran Square Diner which was formerly an Osgood Bradley trolley which ran on the UER line. Zack Mider from the Providence Journal interviewed me last week and is doing a story about the restoration and history of the UER line."

Update: Around September or October of 2008 the diner was sold to RM Auctions of Ontario, Canada. The company plans to restore it for use by employees of their auto restoration shop, a nearby Harley Davidson dealership, and the general public. Dick Shappy told me that the high cost of restoration, coupled with the difficulty of securing the needed specialized skilled labor led him to the decision to part with the Lemoyne. While it's unfortunate that Rhode Island has lost another diner (albeit one that never actually operated here), it's good to know it's in the hands of another owner that wants to see it restored to its former glory. The Lemoyne's second chance at a second life may happen yet.

Update: on February 14, 2009 the ProJo ran another story about the restoration of the 1911 Osgood Bradley trolley. A gallery of images showing the project's progress can be seen here.

Johnston resident Christopher Martin is the curator of the website you are reading now. He eats in diners whenever he can.

This article last edited April 2, 2009

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