May 9, 2013

Skee's Diner: A Slice of Americana in Progress

  • By: National Trust for Historic Preservation
Written by Mallory Somerset, Preservation Intern

Skee’s Diner in Torrington, Conn., c. 2008. Credit: Improbcat, Wikimedia Commons
Skee’s Diner in Torrington, Conn., c. 2008

The American dining car evokes a mid-century nostalgia like nothing else. Perhaps the most recognizable (though not necessarily by name) are dining cars manufactured by the Jerry O’Mahony Company between 1917 and 1941.

Stand-alone Streamline Moderne coaches were manufactured in a factory in New Jersey and brought by flatbed to their final destinations across the States. They had model names like “Victory” and “Monarch” and were built to last 30 years, according to the brochures. Though details such as length and roof shape differ with each model, the interiors are almost identical, and it is this assembly-line sheen of uniformity that give the O’Mahony diners their appeal to vintage diner enthusiasts even today.

Built in the late 1920s, the diner was moved to Torrington in 1945. Credit: National Register for Historic Places
Built in the late 1920s, the diner was moved to Torrington in 1945.

Skee’s Diner in Torrington, Connecticut, is no exception. The barrel roof and long rail-car styling are perfect examples of the time, and even though the diner changed hands multiple times throughout its history, the styling remained the same.

After the restaurant closed in 2001, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places a year later. A plan is in place to restore the classic structure and hopefully make it a usable space once more, but getting there, however, is no easy task.

Assembled in the 1920’s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, dining car #562 was a “Victory” model featuring a rounded barrel roof, Bakelite doors and ceilings, floors made of ceramic tile and Alumilite window sashes. Though it spent some time in Saybrook, Conn., the car would eventually make its way to the corner of North Elm and Main Street in Torrington.

The interior of Skee’s as it was under the helm of Tony Cisowski in the 1950s. Credit: Torrington Historical Society
The interior of Skee’s as it was under the helm of Tony Cisowski in the 1950s.

Originally purchased by Rudy Cielke in 1945, by 1946 the diner was under the helm of local cook Anthony Cisowski. Known as Tony to his regulars, Cisowski would operate Skee’s for another 28 years alongside his brother Edmund and cook Stanley “Stash” Smigel. Cisowski reveled in the “dying art” of running a diner, stating in an interview from 1974, “I don’t like to sell junk. I have to face the people. I depend on them, they depend on me.”

Now, the diner depends on the work of preservationists like Mark McEachern from the Torrington Historical Society, and Ed Cook, President of the Torrington Historic Preservation Trust. Though the structure is listed on the Register, great effort must still be made to preserve the diner’s heritage and charm.

So what does a small town do with a historic diner needing a little TLC? For the preservationists in Torrington, the answer wasn’t so simple.

Preparing Skee's Diner for the move. Credit: Mark McEachern
Preparing Skee's Diner for the move

Moving the now rough-around-the-edges dining car to a more ideal location for restoration until a more finalized plan can be made would be expensive, and some residents could have made the argument that an old diner covered in peeling paint wasn’t worth the effort. But with a sizeable donation from the Historical Society, the Torrington Historic Preservation Trust could finally make the move.

“The Historical Society is proud to support the preservation of Skee’s Diner,” said McEachern. “This contribution to the Preservation Trust is evidence of the Historical Society’s ongoing commitment to preserve Torrington’s history.”

Foundation prepared for the move. Credit: Mark McEachern
Foundation prepared for the move

After preparing the foundation and structure with custom built supports, by the morning of April 14, 2013, the crew was able to hoist the car onto a flat bed trailer and transport it to its new, albeit temporary home. Soon, Skee’s Diner will be restored back to its original kitsch. And as people once depended on the diner, now it’s time for the diner to depend on the people.

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