Future unclear for Cielito Lindo after fire that destroyed downtown building

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Lourdes Perez Rojo said her children didn’t ask Santa for any toys for Christmas. Instead, the partial owner of Cielito Lindo said her kids asked for just one thing: their favorite restaurant back. 

Cielito Lindo, the popular downtown Mexican and Latin American restaurant, was destroyed by a fire that started late on Dec. 13. 

For Perez Rojo, the supportive community that has rallied around the memories of the restaurant have kept it alive — at least until it can make a real return. 

“Not only has the community been very good to me, but they have also cried with me for the loss of Cielito Lindo,” she said. “Really what has kept me strong has been the great love that I know the community had for Cielito Lindo, especially the students of KU.”

Contributed photo Lourdes Perez Rojo (left) and her son, Juan Pablo

Perez Rojo has been an owner of Cielito Lindo, alongside co-owner Jose Lopez, for more than two years, since she took over for her husband. She is also a partial owner of Lulu’s Latin Food. She said that many college students and other guests have reached out to send videos of their favorite memories and offer her support.

Lawrence city commissioners last week approved a request for the demolition of the building at 815 New Hampshire St. that housed Cielito Lindo for nearly two decades. 

The fire was reported at 11:41 p.m. on Dec. 13. Firefighters arrived at the building and found heavy smoke and flames at the rear, specifically by the kitchen on the first floor. By 1:50 a.m, they had to evacuate because of flames breaking through the second-floor roof. The fire was fought from aerial ladders as the roof partially collapsed. 

The fire was finally extinguished around 7 a.m. Dec. 14. City Code Official Brian Jimenez visited the building that day and declared it dangerous under city code. 

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical investigators could not determine the cause of the fire. 

Using a crane to remove some overhead hazards gave them limited access to the inside of the structure, and investigators found that the fire originated in the kitchen, according to a news release from the department.

But “Coordinated scene fire investigation was paused on December 20th following an additional structural collapse near the area of origin and the scene was secured pending further evaluation,” according to the release. 

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The decision by the city commission to approve the demolition request doesn’t compel the property owner to demolish the building, but it allows them to do so in a timely manner because of the unsafe nature of the property. 

The property owner did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment for this article. 

The city’s Historic Resources Commission unanimously approved the request for demolition of the building at their Dec. 21 meeting. Historic Resources Administrator Lynne Braddock Zollner requested to be involved in planning the removal of the structure, according to a memo Zollner sent to city commissioners and staff. Zollner plans to photograph the remaining walls for historical documentation.

Much of the restaurant’s art and design was made by Perez Rojo.

Right now, the future of the restaurant is unclear, but she said she hopes there will be a new place for Cielito Lindo that she can redecorate, inspired by the love the Lawrence community has shown her.

“I was in charge of making it look beautiful,” Perez Rojo said. “I designed everything myself and put my art in stone. There were really many memories left there and a lot of work and dedication.”

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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Kaw Valley Almanac for April 22-28, 2024

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