‘Like having CPR administered’: Noah’s Ark wins injunction to stay open

By: - May 6, 2022 6:11 pm

A Polk County judge has blocked efforts to terminate the lease of Des Moines' 75-year-old Noah's Ark restaurant. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The managers of Des Moines’ Noah’s Ark restaurant won temporary protection Friday from being evicted, with a judge blocking efforts to terminate the 75-year-old eatery’s lease.

The ruling means that, at least for now, the faction of the Lacona family that has run the restaurant since 1947 won’t be forced out of business. Other members of the family who own the real estate where the business is located are looking to redevelop the site on Ingersoll Avenue.

Restaurant manager James Lacona II, the grandson of founder Noah Lacona, expressed relief late Friday at the decision by Polk County District Judge David Nelmark to enjoin the owners from terminating the restaurant’s lease.

“This is almost like having CPR administered, like bringing the place back to life,” he said outside the courtroom. “If this business were to close, it would be almost like my father and my grandfather dying all over again. This restaurant was their life’s work. If the business stays open, in a way, they live on. This case is not about the money for me. It’s never been about the money. It’s about honoring and protecting the legacy of my father and my grandfather.”

During Friday’s hearing, James Lacona II testified that while he hasn’t paid rent directly to the family trust that owns the real estate, he has placed each month’s rent in an escrow account pending the resolution of claims that the trust has failed to maintain the property as required by the lease.

Attorneys for Noah’s Management presented evidence that on more than one occasion, James Lacona II notified the trust, in writing, of repairs that were needed at the restaurant. Some repairs, such as the installation of a new water heater, had to be handled immediately and so the management company, owned by his mother, Nora Beth Lacona, absorbed the cost.

“I’ve got leaks on the roof,” James Lacona II testified. “I’ve got a collapsed pipe that leads from the bar… The pizza oven, I didn’t deduct this from the rent, but I rebuilt that.”

He said in addition to a new roof, the building needs work on the parking lot and there are repairs needed where a vehicle struck the building.

He also testified that a new heating, cooling and ventilation system is needed. “Some days, some of it will work, but some days, it won’t,” he testified.

James Lacona II said when the cost of the necessary improvements is combined with the cost of repairs paid for by the management company, the dollar amount exceeds any rent that Noah’s Management owes to the trust.

That trust is run by Anntoinette Erickson, one of the children of Noah Lacona and his wife, Sara Ann, who was better known as Sally.

Friday’s hearing stemmed from Nora Beth Lacona’s request for an emergency temporary injunction that would prevent Erickson and the trust from terminating the lease. In his testimony, James Lacona II told the court that if the lease is terminated, the restaurant will be forced to close as it currently has no options for relocating.

According to court records, the trust, with Erickson acting as trustee, first attempted to terminate the lease and shut down the restaurant in March 2020. “At that point,” James Lacona II testified about his aunt, “we weren’t speaking.”

Noah’s Management went to court to block that move, and the case was transferred from Polk County District Court to Iowa Business Specialty Court, where a judge mediated a settlement agreement between the parties.

At Friday’s hearing, there was evidence presented that Erickson never signed the settlement agreement and continued to pursue efforts to have the real estate sold and redeveloped.

Noah’s Management claims the trust is obligated to give it the right of first refusal on any sale, which means the trust should allow the management company to purchase the property for the same price offered by any third party.

At the end of Friday’s hearing, Judge Nelmark encouraged the Laconas and the trust to work toward a settlement while litigation over rent and repairs continues. “But for the time being, the lease will not be terminated,” Nelmark said.

In a separate case, James Lacona II and his mother, Nora Beth Lacona, sued the trust last year over property that they said the trust was claiming as its own. The property includes a 1980 Corvette and a 1965 Thunderbird. That case is scheduled for trial in November.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.