The Real Deal
Some buildings have it. A distinctive quality old-building lovers call “a sense of place.” It’s something that can’t be artificially replicated, though plenty have tried.
Some places consciously embrace that quality, proudly showcasing their historic features to attract attention. Others are less deliberate about it, quietly channeling their history via long use, tradition, and deep community roots. In all cases, these are places where original architectural character and authentic stories combine to create something unique.
In downtown Columbus, Zaharakos is one of these genuine articles, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor that’s lured patrons for more than a century with the promise of Green River floats and Gom sandwiches. With two early nineteenth-century Mexican onyx soda fountains, a Tiffany-style lamp, 50-foot Mahogany backbar, and Italian marble counter, the restaurant offers a visual feast to complement its culinary creations.
James, Lewis, and Pete Zaharako founded the Columbus institution in 1900, and members of the Zaharako family ran the restaurant for over a century, until Lew Zaharako passed away in 2006. Concerned that the fabulous interior fixtures might be sold off piecemeal, a group of Columbus residents explored purchasing and restoring Zaharakos. Eventually, local businessman Tony Moravec decided to buy the local landmark. His two-year restoration returned the place to its early 1900s grandeur, the era when the Zaharako brothers purchased two onyx soda fountains they’d seen on display at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Moravec’s comprehensive overhaul included restoring the classic fixtures and marble counter, re-installing carved tin ceiling tiles, and refinishing maple woodwork and brass chandeliers.
After tracking down the California collector who had purchased the restaurant’s 1908 Welte player organ (above left), Moravec bought it back and sent the organ to Maryland to be restored. The project sparked Moravec’s interest, inspiring him to renovate the building next door for a small museum of mechanical musical instruments and a display of pre-1900 soda fountains and syrup dispensers acquired from collectors around the country.
Upstairs, Moravec transformed the Zaharako family’s former living quarters into a Victorian-era living space complete with dining and sitting rooms, kitchen, and bedroom. The space also houses libraries of documents related to soda fountain and mechanical music history, including rolls of music.
Last year, Zaharakos’ remarkable authenticity caught the eye of film writer, director, and producer Robert Moniot, who happened upon the place during an online search for an early twentieth-century ice cream parlor to serve as the central set for his film The Ice Cream Man. The short film tells the true story of Ernst Cahn, the Jewish owner of a popular Amsterdam ice cream parlor who was targeted by the Nazi “Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie and whose actions led to the largest mass resistance to the Nazis during World War II.
Discovering just the right setting for Café Koco was essential to the story, but Moniot couldn’t find what he wanted scouting locations in the Netherlands, New York, or Los Angeles. In a last-ditch effort, he searched for “1900 ice cream parlor,” on Google and Zaharakos topped the search results. Captivated by photos of the place, Moniot set up a site visit and met Tony Moravec to explain his vision for the movie.
“It was like walking into the most immaculately dressed environment that you could hope for,” says Moniot. “It far surpassed anything you’d see built on a movie set, especially on our budget. Everyone’s mouths just dropped.”
Moravec caught his passion for the story and the role Zaharakos and Columbus could play in bringing it to life. He offered the ice cream parlor for filming and even volunteered to assist in fundraising. When Moravec passed away unexpectedly in late 2022, his family continued to support the project, which filmed at Zaharakos and around Columbus in March 2023.
Moravec’s foresight in restoring the building’s upper floors proved valuable, as well. The film crew used the Zaharako family’s former apartment to stand in as living quarters for the Cahn family, who also lived above their ice cream parlor in Amsterdam. Another part of the building doubled as a Nazi office.
“I really felt like the kind of person that Tony was aligned very closely with the kind of person I imagine Ernst Kahn to have been,” says Moniot. “Both were passionate, socially engaged as businessmen, but also politically. Both seem to have had this exuberance and zest for life, and both loved ice cream.”
“It had been so important to Tony to restore Zaharakos to its original glory and make it available to both the local community and visitors from all around,” says Tony’s son Ryan Moravec. “He loved seeing family and friends enjoying the lively music and the happy atmosphere at Zaharakos. I believe he would be proud to see that restoration coming to life on screen.”
Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum is located at 329 Washington Street, Columbus, zaharakos.com.
Learn more about The Ice Cream Man, including news on its premiere, at the film’s website, theicecreamman.movie.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Indiana Preservation, Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine.
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