New life for a historic hall
● By J. Chambless
By John Chambless
For the thousands of people who drive past every day, and the thousands more who live and work in Kennett Square, the American Legion building on State Street has been essentially invisible.
The store fronts now occupied by the Square Pear Fine Art Gallery, and the artist studios of Robert Jackson, April Heather and Peter Willard face the street, but the huge building behind them is unknown territory to most people. For photographer Rusty Nelson, that untapped potential has been the driving force behind the building’s rebirth as the American Legion Arts Center. The ultimate goal, he said, was to revitalize the membership in the American Legion by repurposing the building as more than a place for veterans to meet.
Nelson, who is renovating a former lawyer’s office in one corner of the building as his own studio, has gotten to know the Legion building inside and out – from its formerly dull brown paneling to its maze of wiring and plumbing, some of it dating back to the 1920s. The building’s cornerstone is from 1925, a time when World War I veterans were plentiful. The hall has a vast, open central area where basketball games were once held, and hundreds of people attended dances, car shows and other events. The lower level spans the entire block, and holds a warren of closets, storage spaces and a huge, open room that once held several bowling alleys.
The building was underused, expensive to keep up, and with a dwindling base of members.
“Three or four years ago, I decided to get out of L.A. I was in the entertainment business. Before that I had been an Air Force pilot, had my own corporation. In my 40s, I directed a show for Fox and did a couple of bad horror movies I don’t want you to see,” he said, laughing. “But I wanted to find a small town where I could make a difference. In L.A., you’re just a small fish in a pond. Here, you can do something. I have cousins and an uncle living in the area, and I thought Kennett Square had everything. I would go to borough council meetings to meet people and find out what was going on. It’s an artsy town, but there didn’t seem to be a centralization of people to talk to.”
Nelson’s dazzling, razor-sharp photos are immediately striking, and he was casually looking for a space to exhibit when Stephen McKinney, owner of the KSI Crafts wine store, told him he was looking for some kind of art for the shop’s walls. Nelson also ran into Robert Jackson, a nationally-known painter whose studio is in the American Legion building. “He said, ‘You’re that photographer from L.A., aren’t you?’” Nelson recalled, laughing. “He recommended I talk to Steve too. So everything was telling me to go talk to him.”
Nelson moved his work into the shop in May 2018, then went on his annual trip as a photography guide and stormchaser in the Midwest. Returning to Kennett Square in late July, he found out about the American Legion building. When an attorney moved out of the corner storefront space, Nelson started knocking down interior walls and renovating the space, which he hopes to open soon as a combination of studio and “man cave,” he said, smiling.
But when he walked through the cavernous hall at the center of the building, he found depressing, chocolate-brown paneling and not much else. The space is used by the Kennett Area Theatrical Society to rehearse for their annual shows (and as storage for their sets and costumes), and the hall was available for rent, but the small parties that booked the place were not bringing in enough money.
“I would tell people about the American Legion building, and they’d say, ‘Where?’ And these were people who lived in town,” Nelson said during a tour last month.
Local businesses were solicited, and donated paint and other supplies at reduced cost. The result – even in this early stage – are impressive. The main room has bright white walls, visually opening up the space. There’s a fully-stocked bar at one end of the room, and a fully functional stage at the other end, with a red velvet curtain purchased second-hand from a church in Virginia. There are dozens of round tables that could seat 300 people for a concert, party, wedding reception or meeting.
Downstairs, storage rooms hold the American Legion’s tableware from parties of decades past, and there is a revitalized club space for the remaining members, with a pool table, shuffleboard and darts. But there is much that is not being utilized, especially a vast, open room that is full of old furniture and costumes and other castoffs – including the original bingo boards used decades ago.
“There was a plan at one time to turn this space into artist studios,” Nelson said. “I’m working on a way to get that going again. People told me this used to hold bowling alleys that were very popular and used by the community, but I can’t find a single photo of it.”
Estimating the cost to renovate the downstairs at something around $150,000, Nelson realizes he faces an uphill battle, but Historic Kennett Square and the downtown business community are rallying behind him, and town officials are fully in support of turning the largely vacant building into a thriving rental facility, exhibition space and place for artists to combine their efforts.
The building has been well maintained, but a new boiler and air-conditioning improvements have cost an estimated $10,000 recently, and Nelson can only shrug at the tangled wires from various eras running across the basement ceiling.
The building’s entrance on South Broad Street has a foyer space that Nelson is outfitting with historical photos of downtown Kennett, as well as a history of the Legion building itself. There’s a new name over the door on State Street, but he realizes more work is needed to get the word out.
“I started a Meetup page to be a catch-all information center for the arts in Kennett Square, and Historic Kennett Square is sponsoring it. We’re booked on weekends through August,” he said. “But those are all people who don’t even know the building’s been renovated, so it will be a surprise.”
Nelson has found plenty of people willing to help his efforts, and he credits building supervisor Les Brown and Arnold Reeves, commander of Kennett Square Post 491, with invaluable help in the project. But on a personal level, he pointed to a photo of American Legion members at an event in 1940 that now hangs beside the upstairs bar.
“When I was downstairs here, talking about starting this, this photo was hanging in an office,” Nelson said. “Some of the members here are in their 70s, 80s. What happens five or 10 years from now? I kept looking at this photo and thought, ‘These guys are looking at me. They’re saying I know how to fix this.’” Nelson said. “I walked out of that meeting and for two or three days, it stuck with me. I just thought, ‘I do know how to do this. I’ve owned my own company.’ It took a while to convince people that I wasn’t totally nuts.
“My girlfriend tells me I’m obsessed with this project, but all I want to do is market this place so the building comes alive again. We are all so open to ideas,” he added. “I want to be able to display the history of Kennett in this place and make it a thriving community resource again.”
For more information, visit www.RustyNelson.com.
Meetup page for Arts Center: www.meetup.com/Arts-Kennett-Square-Brandywine/.
American Legion information: www.facebook.com/AmericanLegionKennettSquare/ or call 610- 444-3004 for hall booking information.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.