WORCESTER, Mass. — For a quarter of the 20th century, Sherwood’s Diner at 56 Foster St. in Worcester, was known as the police diner, where owner Ernest J. Ryan and his family swapped stories and slung hash for cops, firefighters, lawyers and people just coming in for a cup of coffee.
But for the last 6 ½ years, the diner, Worcester Lunch Car Co. #755, has sat in the back lot of an industrial plant in Sutton, in limbo on a long road to once-promised restoration.
Daniel Moroney, the owner of the Sutton property where the diner sits rent-free, sent a letter last week to directors of the Rhode Island-based American Diner Museum, which since the mid-1990s has owned the diner, demanding that the diner be removed.
How Sherwood’s Diner got from the heart of Worcester to Providence, to a juvenile detention facility in Cranston, Rhode Island, to an industrial lot in Sutton is a story tangled up with nostalgia, greed and egos – accusations each side has leveled against the other.
Worcester city and area nonprofit organization officials, as well as National Park Service staff in the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, have been trying for a decade to bring Sherwood’s Diner back to Worcester as part of a visitor center. But they’ve been stymied by Diner Museum officials who have refused to sign over ownership.
Daniel Zilka of Charlotte, Vermont, president of the American Diner Museum, acquired the diner and its furnishings by donation. He said in an interview he wanted the museum to be reimbursed $7,500 for previous moving costs associated with bringing the diner from Auburn, where it was last used, to Rhode Island.
In an online chat last year with Virginia W. Ryan, a retired teacher and Ernest Ryan’s daughter, Mr. Zilka told her the museum had spent $4,755 in rigging and transport expenses from Auburn to Providence, plus several subsequent moves.
Mr. Zilka also wanted to be thanked for saving the diner from dilapidation or demolition.
“All we want to do is be recognized for our efforts,” Mr. Zilka said. “We’d graciously give it at that point. I’d also offer my services pro bono to help restore it.”
He said, “I remember seeing that diner in forlorn condition 10 to 15 years ago in Auburn. No one was interested in it then.”
Mr. Zilka said he would have to discuss with the museum board’s three other directors what their response to Mr. Moroney’s letter would be.
The American Diner Museum, which in 2015 changed its name to American Diner Heritage Inc., does not have an exhibit space, but over the years has stored items it collected in facilities in Fall River, Pawtucket and elsewhere.
“They do forget we have significant parts of the diner,” he said, referring to many of the decorative and interior components, which are not now in the shrink-wrapped structure. “What they’re going to end up with is a shell of a diner.”
In fact, an email in 2014 from Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Ranger Chuck Arning to Mr. Zilka mentions a broken commitment by Mr. Zilka to include the components when it was brought to Sutton in 2011: “And frankly, Dan, I don’t believe you still have those artifacts – sold off a long time ago,” Mr. Arning wrote.
“Perhaps in the long scheme of things, the building will go back to Worcester,” Mr. Zilka said. “It has been a very rocky road because of the actors involved in this.”
Jeannie Hebert, president and CEO of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, has worked to bring the diner back to the area.
“It’s a piece of Worcester and a piece of Worcester County,” she said. “It could’ve been done years ago, but greed and ego got in the way.”
Ms. Ryan recalled happier times at Sherwood’s Diner, as she talked recently to a reporter outside the shrink-wrapped hulk.
She said her father ran the diner from the time he bought it in 1943 until he died in 1966, when her mother, Mae Leofanti Ryan, took over.
Ms. Ryan, who taught at Burncoat Senior High School in the 1960s, worked at the diner after school and on Saturdays, often preparing meals for suspects police had in custody at the Waldo Street station.
“I used to be a shy person until I went down to the diner,” she said. “It was bantering back and forth. It was entertainment for the other people. They’d love it and they’d come back for more.”
The diner closed in 1969 and the Worcester Redevelopment Authority took it over in 1970, moving it to Shrewsbury to make room for the Centrum, which is now the DCU Center.
The Ryans removed several of the booths, stools, marble counter and other artifacts and stored them with family members.
Sherwood’s Diner sat as a storage unit for plumbing supplies until John P. “Jack” Tighe purchased it in 1972 and moved it to Auburn, where he briefly ran an ice-cream parlor out of it.
The ice-cream business fizzled and the diner sat empty, falling victim to vandalism and disrepair.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Zilka, a preservationist with a keen interest in diners, started talking to diner owners and others about launching a museum to preserve what he described in a video as “community gathering places” and “a democratic eating table.”
The 1996 video, part of the series, “Along the Blackstone,” hosted and co-produced by National Park Service Ranger Chuck Arning, features several Worcester-area diners.
The diner concept was born in the late 1800s in Providence and Worcester.
Mr. Zilka says on the video: “Our main goal is to kindle an appreciation for diners,” to help keep them in business to maintain community character.
In 1994, according to Ms. Ryan, Mr. Zilka convinced Mr. Tighe to donate to the nascent diner museum Sherwood’s Diner, and he convinced the Ryans to donate the furnishings that they had kept.
Ms. Ryan now regrets that decision.
“My brother always said, he could charm anybody out of their gold teeth,” she said of Mr. Zilka.
Mr. Tighe lives in Connecticut and the listed phone number was not in service.
An affidavit he signed in November 2016 stated in part: “…The representations made to me by the museum regarding the restoration of the diner gift have not been fulfilled. I hereby make known that I revoke the diner gift to said museum.”
The American Diner Museum was incorporated in Rhode Island in 1996. Even in its early years, some of its erstwhile supporters became detractors.
James Dempsey, a former Telegram & Gazette columnist, wrote in a July 28, 2000, column that Randy Garbin, editor of the former Worcester-based Roadside magazine, and Richard J.S. Gutman of Boston, a diner consultant and author, both who had originally been connected with the museum, were now “disaffected.”
Mr. Dempsey wrote: “They like the idea, but are critical of Mr. Zilka’s methods and abilities and are doubtful of the museum’s chances of raising the money it still needs.”
“Zilka was never really interested in opening up a museum. He was just interested in collecting stuff,” Mr. Garbin said in a recent interview.
“More often than not, he’d (Zilka) get involved, he’d stop showing up and then things started disappearing.”
Mr. Garbin, who now lives near Philadelphia, is also the author of “Diners of New England.”
Mr. Zilka rejected Mr. Garbin’s charges, citing personality conflicts. “He tried to create a niche for himself and he failed miserably,” Mr. Zilka said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zilka said, after hoped-for space at a historical museum that had been planned in Providence fell apart a decade ago, the American Diner Museum was shifting focus.
“We’ve sort of gone into hibernation,” Mr. Zilka said. “We’re downsizing. We’re becoming a virtual museum.”
On its website, www.americandinermuseum.org, it says: “The Museum helps to save such diners by acting as a broker for resale or by relocating a diner to temporary storage.”
Mr. Gutman declined to discuss Mr. Zilka or the American Diner Museum.
But the author of “The Worcester Lunch Car Company” and former director and curator of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University said he “would absolutely recommend” restoring the diner.
“I don’t know the current condition of the diner, but the Worcester Lunch Car Company, like most other diner builders, regularly reconditioned used diners…,” he wrote in an email. “So, no matter how compromised Sherwood’s Diner has become over the years, it can be made as good as new again.”
While Sherwood’s Diner sat mothballed in Rhode Island for a decade, there was a flurry of excitement in 2008, when the American Diner Museum announced a partnership with the Rhode Island Training School, a juvenile detention center run by the state Department of Children, Youth and Families, to teach juvenile offenders to restore and operate rescued diners.
Sherwood’s Diner was one of four selected to be restored in what was dubbed the New Hope Diner Project.
Worcester city officials had been planning around this time a visitor center, with a new home for the Worcester Historical Museum, in the former Washburn and Moen factory in Quinsigamond Village. They hoped to bring Sherwood’s Diner, restored at RITS, to be a part of that complex.
The training school only restored one diner, Hickey’s Diner from Taunton, before the correctional facility moved and the program folded, according to Kerri White, communications director for DCYF.
At the same time, plans for the Worcester visitor center got sidelined temporarily when the factory burned in 2010.
Around 2011, according to Mr. Arning, the National Heritage Corridor Commission received an urgent request from Mr. Zilka to take Sherwood’s Diner from its storage at RITS in Cranston before it would be demolished by the state.
Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce officials and Corridor Commission staff explored possibilities for the diner as a visitor kiosk off of Route 146. But Worcester wasn’t off the table, as revised plans for a northern visitor center took shape.
In July 2011, through a cooperative agreement and funding from the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission, Worcester Historical Museum paid Demers Trucking of Attleboro $2,812.50 to move the diner from Cranston to the Sutton site arranged through the chamber.
A June 29, 2011, letter of understanding signed by Jan H. Reitsma, then the executive director of the Corridor Commission, and Mr. Zilka, said that upon transfer of ownership of the diner to the city of Worcester, the Corridor Commission, through the Worcester Historical Museum, would reimburse the Diner Museum up to $7,500 for transportation expenses it previously incurred to move the diner to its storage location in Cranston.
That transfer of ownership never happened, so the Diner Museum was not reimbursed.
Congressional authorization for the Corridor Commission, and future federal funding for the project, expired in October 2012.
Frustrations between park rangers, who remained involved after the creation of the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, and Mr. Zilka grew after several unsuccessful attempts to transfer ownership of Sherwood’s Diner to a local organization so it could finally be restored.
Mr. Arning wrote to Mr. Zilka in June 2013: “As you also know, however, (Riverdale Mills owner) Jim Knott is willing to take on the task, and the financial responsibility, of having the diner restored and used reflecting its historical context…. It was clearly stated that this would not be a financial transaction.
“We believe this is a win-win opportunity for all. The Diner gets restored at no cost to you or your board and placed where it can be utilized by the general public and its history told.”
More than a year later, Mr. Zilka was still holding out for payment.
In a Nov. 24, 2014, email to Mr. Arning, Mr. Zilka wrote, in part: “It is unfortunate that Mr. Knott was unable to find the few dollars necessary to purchase Sherwood’s Diner, considering his financial resources and financial support of political action committees.”
“That’s been his long thing: ‘I want money for it,’ ” Mr. Arning said in an interview. “He talks a good game, but in the final analysis, nothing ever seems to happen.”
Ms. Ryan refused to give up her dream of bringing Sherwood’s Diner back to Worcester. Over the past few years, she met with William D. Wallace, executive director of the Worcester Historical Museum, City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. and others with a proposal to work with Worcester Technical High School students to restore the diner.
The only hitch: To receive grants for restoration, the diner would have to be owned by a nonprofit organization, likely the Historical Museum.
She said she hoped Mr. Zilka and the American Diner Museum would transfer ownership, so that the city or the Historical Museum could proceed with restoration rather than endure a protracted court battle.
“I would love to see the diner come back to Worcester and be used in some way, shape or form,” Mr. Augustus said. “It’s just the matter of finding the right site.”
He said the diner would be “a tribute to Worcester’s past” as well as an avenue to create jobs and “add to the vibrancy of the community.”
Mr. Wallace said that the diner by itself might not be practical for food service, with modern requirements for food sanitation, bathrooms and fire safety.
“I think you could use it as the front for something,” he said. “There are possibilities for the diner. It’s a part of Worcester’s landscape. But for what purpose?”
“I think a lot of us would like to see pieces of our heritage preserved,” said Mr. Arning. “To have it (lost) because of outright greed, I think that’s part of the tragedy in place.”
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com