Those planning the renovation of the Charles Hamblen American Legion Post 37 faced the difficult task of keeping the downtown hall recognizable while modernizing and beautifying the venerable building.
A week after reopening for the first time in almost two years and after serving hundreds of customers on the holiday weekend, the leaders of the Post’s day-to-day operations are happy with what they have.
So far, the biggest problem seems to be that many people are still learning that the Legion Post is finally open following a $2 million renovation of the restaurant and bar. (The second floor, for Legion meetings and other private events, is still under construction.)
Those who have wandered in seem pleased with what looks like a new restaurant in a building that’s more than 100 years old.
“People who have been coming here the longest were the most surprised (with the improvements),” said Gary Bruce, the comptroller.
New general manager Mary K. Ference, who worked at Gypsy Cab Co. for about 20 years, said the Legion Post still wants to be welcoming to the longtime members who have enjoyed spending time there.
But at the same time, the restaurant, which is also open to the general public, is going to be different. The menu is gradually expanding and developing to match the expectations of being in downtown St. Augustine.
“We’re really trying to rebrand and give the American Legion a whole new reputation so it’s inviting to Legion members and visitors,” Ference said.
The new feature that might contribute most to the Legion Post’s attractiveness is the expanded outdoor seating.
Bruce said there is now a total of 160 seats outside. Among those seats are spots on a new deck that faces the bayfront.
That deck was especially popular on July 4 when the restaurant served more than 400 customers on the holiday.
Ference said she was happy to see the big crowd Tuesday and that most of the people she’s talked to like the new look.
“They were excited for the changes,” she said. “They were happy we were able to keep the integrity of the (historic) building.”
Although the renovations are likely to make the Legion Post more popular with the general public, Ference said this is not about pushing members aside. Members will have an exclusive area in the restaurant and will receive a discount.
And the Legion organization will benefit from whatever revenues come in.
“This is all to raise money to give back to the community,” Ference said.
There’s also the sense of pride that goes into the new look, added Bruce. The former Hamblen mansion has been a Legion Post for close to 100 years, and the building’s beauty in such a prime spot in the city is something to be celebrated, he said.
“It’s worth it for the location,” Bruce said of the renovation. “It’s worth it for the history of the building.”