Florida Keys News
Sunday, February 9, 2014
Architectural rebirth
Reconstruction starts on Bahama Village's American Legion

Inside this shuttered old clubhouse built in 1952, Glenwood Lopez can still see Key West history unfolding.

He and his wife, Michelle, had their wedding reception 44 years ago in this 1952-era building outfitted with a stage, dance floor, wraparound mezzanine, a full kitchen and a horseshoe-shaped bar.

"Then we renewed our vows in 2009," said Lopez, 68, while showing a visitor around the iconic American Legion Post 6021/Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 168 building that has its own place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Both veterans groups in Key West banded together in the 1940s to raise the money that would build two home posts under one roof. The Emma Street building flourished as a social hall.

"The hub of the community was the VFW," Lopez said. "You went to school Monday, and at night they held teenage dances at the VFW. The weekend is when the adults were going to the VFW."

In 2012, his son, Shevon Lopez, had his wedding reception here, too, although the bar had been replaced years back.

That same year, however, the city declared the building unsafe, and it was locked up -- awaiting structural renovations that began in December.

On Friday, freshly poured concrete columns were setting, and one side of the building, where rusted steel bars had popped out of concrete, known as "spalling," had been repaired.

Bert Bender and Associates Architects took on the project, funded by $210,000 from city Tax Incremental Funding from Bahama Village homeowners, and a $50,000 grant that Bender's office snagged from the state.

That's just enough to complete the "structural stabilization," of the building, Bender said Friday. Crews will replace columns and beams by the end of spring to make the building habitable again.

"It is an important architectural piece," said Bender. "But the real significance is that it was the black American Legion Hall. After World War II, blacks weren't allowed to participate in the all-white American Legions. They had to start their own."

As for the interior renovations, Lopez, an Air Force veteran who has been a member of the American Legion for 37 years, said the club hasn't the funding yet.

"We're not sure if the air conditioning still works," Lopez said, standing on the vintage tile that held steel bars and construction dust. On the bar, martini glasses and shot glasses rested face down.

But Lopez and other locals have hope that they will see the hall packed with revelers, community groups and veterans once again.

"This was built by members, most of whom are dead," Lopez said. "One is still living. John Knowles Sr. He just turned 92 on Super Bowl Sunday."

History lessons abound inside the hall.

The VFW hall was part of the post-World War II "Chitlin' Circuit," Lopez said, ticking off big names like James Brown, B.B. King, Etta James and Bill Doggett.

"We have two dressing rooms," Lopez said, pointing to the stage, "one for the band and one for the performer."

In 1945, black veterans in Key West started renting the band room at Angela and Thomas streets to hold their meetings. Both the American Legion Post 168 and the VFW Post 6021 received temporary charters from their national leaderships in 1946, according to the application made to the National Register of Historic Places.

The VFW named the post in honor of Walter Mickens, a Key Wester killed during World War II; while the Legion named itself after William Weech, another native who died on the USS Maine while it was docked in Havana on Feb. 15, 1898.

The building was dedicated on Dec. 13, 1952, at a time when Key West was home to more than 10,000 Navy personnel in full deployment.

In recent years, the building became a hall rental for events. The entrance today resembles that of a night club, with signs forbidding tank tops and sagging pants, along with drugs.

Back in the 1940s, both posts leased the Old Dixie Hall on Whitehead Street, and ran it like a nightclub, raising money for the clubhouse's construction

Men and women of both posts banded together to raise the money to build the Emma Street clubhouse, buying the land for $10 in 1951 from Key West Postmaster Fred Dion and his wife, Margaret, the application says. Politicians donated hundreds of concrete blocks for the art deco style building, and local businesses chipped in.

"Many post members were adept carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons and handymen," the application reads. "They worked full-time at the naval station, and after work they would work on the new post."

When members fell short on funds to finish the Emma Street clubhouse that both veterans groups would share, the American Legion Arthur Sawyer Post 28 in Key West loaned them $2,000.

"These veterans demonstrated their patriotism and determination to continue serving their community despite having to deal with segregation," the application says.


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