After nearly 100 years, a team of volunteers is working to renovate American Legion Post 414, a residential home that was built around 1921 by a group of local veterans of World War I.
“We want everybody from soup to nuts, young, old to come use it and experience it,” said Mike Thompson, a member who helps coordinate rentals at the 500 Circle Ave. facility. Thompson served for 33 years as a sergeant major in the U.S. Army and is also a retired Forest Park police officer, who joined the Legion in 2008 after he came off active military duty.
“Every situation is different and every party’s different,” he said. “We want to treat everybody like they’re coming to Uncle Herbie’s basement, and they have a good time.”
After about a year of renovations, the Legion Hall has been transformed into more than just a place for middle-aged vets to hang out, drink beer and watch sports. So far this year it has hosted quinceneras, bat mitzvahs, weddings and more, and generated at least $7,000 in profit, Thompson said. The staff dreams of eventually hosting fish frys every Friday night.
Thompson credits the Legion’s renaissance to its big makeover — it no longer smells like an old-man bar and cigarettes, he said — and the unique offering it brings to the community.
“We want to keep the old charm here; we don’t want to totally modernize it to the point that it’s sterile,” he said. “It’s going to be successful because this community needs something like this; there’s no other place like it in town.”
Renovations started about a year ago after the Legion came under new leadership and realized that rentals were the primary way to generate revenue for the organization. The group paid $17,000 for new air conditioning, about $13,000 for a new boiler, and has invested “substantially” in other updates, like a new stove and refrigerator, Thompson said.
Everything else — appliances, labor, materials — has been donated.
HOBO donated the counter tops for the new bathrooms. Friends restrung lighting, and brought in new tables, chairs and most of the building materials. Volunteer contractors tore down the dark wood wall paneling, and applied a fresh coat of white paint.
Renovating the space serves as a way to generate revenue, but also as a way to introduce new members to the organization. After members of the Postal Union saw the updated space, they started hosting meetings at Post 414 once a month.
“If we can get local people invested, especially younger people, that’s the goal because as everybody gets older the traditions are going to die off,” Thompson said.
And renovations aren’t done.
Forest Park-ers plan to sew new curtains for the windows. The Legion plans to redo the basement floors, replacing linoleum that hasn’t been updated in nearly 70 years. Officials are looking at painting the stucco outside, and plan to solicit bids for the kitchen, for a contractor to redo the cabinets, formica and other devices. Thompson said one woman has already asked about renting the Legion to house her catering business.
“You don’t want to be captain of a sinking ship; you want to be part of something that’s growing,” said Eric Van Ness, a member. “There’s a whole lot of underserved vets out there and that’s something that we can support.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Forest Park residents plan to make new curtains for the American Legion.