Cause of blaze could not be determined
Canton--One of Ohio�s historic gay bars was set to be torn down this week following a June 27 fire that gutted it. The cause of the fire remains a mystery.
Jamie Bartrug, owner of the 540 Club at 540 Walnut Avenue, said he has looked at new locations, but isn�t sure reopening will be possible.
Bartrug, 43, bought the downtown Canton landmark from its founder Larry Loveless in 1996 and has operated it since.
Bartrug said the bar opened in either 1974 or 1976, making it the second oldest gay bar in Ohio continuously operated at one location. Only Cleveland�s Leather Stallion, opened in 1970, is older.
Before 540, Loveless operated the gay 304 Club four blocks away at 304 Cherry Avenue, where the gay bar Crew is now located.
Currently the home of the Iron Eagles leather club, 540 dates back to a time before LGBT centers, gay straight alliances, local queer political groups, or gay-themed television, when bars were the only place where gays, especially men, could go to be themselves. It was a time, especially in smaller communities like Canton, where the bars were the center of gay activity, and the bar owners were influential.
When AIDS hit the Canton area in the 1980s, the 540 Club and its patrons were among the first to respond, holding benefits to raise money, caring for the sick, distributing food and educating health officials about the local gay community.
The 540 Club often served as a headquarters and meeting place for those trying to deliver AIDS prevention messages.
�Larry Loveless is owed thanks for what he did for our community,� said Bartrug. �He was a pioneer.�
�It wasn�t just a bar,� said Bartrug, �It�s a place where people found safety inside for years. For many it was the first place where they felt normal. It was the place where everyone went when the world hated us.�
�In high school, I went there every night,� Bartrug added.
Bartrug, who lived in the apartment above the bar, said that around �last call� at 2:30 the morning of June 27, some of the patrons thought they smelled smoke.
�We checked trash cans, and around the bar and didn�t find anything,� said Bartrug. �Then we went outside on Sixth Street and smelled smoke, and thought it was something outside.�
At about 5:30, the smoke detector in his apartment went off, waking Bartrug to a building already engulfed in flame.
Bartrug called the fire department and helped a neighbor immediately to the east out of her home, which was also damaged by the fire. A vacant commercial building touching the club on the south also had minor damage.
The 540 Club was actually two separate structures spliced together.
The front, a late 19th-century wood-frame structure facing Walnut Avenue, connected to a brick commercial building built in 1920 that originally faced Sixth Street.
The fire was reported to have �come out of every window and crack in the building.� It gutted both structures, consuming the roof and much of the second floor, and left the outer walls crumbling onto the sidewalk.
Dave Akers, who led the investigation for the Canton Fire Department, said the cause could not be determined.
�We can�t tell how it started,� said Akers, adding that even with specially trained dogs, no sign of accelerant or other typical indicators of arson were found.
The location where it began is known, however. �It started in the rear of the building in the caged-in area where stuff was stored,� Akers said.
Bartrug said that area had electricity, and was used to store things like cleaners, paint, the stage lights for shows, and small appliances used when food was served.
Bartrug said most of the insurance money will go to Loveless, who was financing his purchase through a land contract arrangement.
�I don�t have a pot to piss in once it�s done,� said Bartrug, though he still has the liquor license and the empty lot.
Bartrug said building new on that site may not be possible due to city codes that prohibit building right to the sidewalk.
Another problem may be churches.
�I would prefer to stay downtown,� said Bartrug, �but churches own nearly every empty storefront in downtown Canton, and they will have to approve the liquor license transfer.�
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