American Legion Hall ‘On The Block’
A Rockaway landmark is up for sale. The dwindling membership of the Daniel M. O’Connell Post 272 American Legion has decided to sell its hall and is in search of a smaller, more economical meeting place, according to Mike Honan, the post’s commander.
"The cost of maintaining the post has become prohibitive," Honan said. "What’s killing us are the insurance and the utilities."
Insuring the wood-framed structure, located at 301 Beach 92 Street, just north of the Rockaway Freeway, costs more than $15,000 a year, according to Honan.
The post has about 600 members, but more than 400 have moved away from Rockaway, and there are fewer than 50 members involved in the day-to-day operations.
Activity at the hall has been on the decline for the past three decades, Honan said. Years ago it was a busy place where war-time veterans, Boy Scout packs, a rifle club and various civic groups held their meetings. The bar made money, and the hall’s calendar was filled with bookings for various private celebrations.
"This was a jumpin’ place until the mid ‘70s," Honan said. Times have changed.
An improved economic climate in Rockaway brought new and more attractive commercial party spaces to the Peninsula, said Jonathan Gaska, District Manager of Community Board 14.
"It’s really a shame that people turn their noses up at this place," Honan said.
But even as the hall nearly disappeared from the list of choice local spots to celebrate communions, sweet 16s and weddings, it remained a vital spot for public meetings.
Over the last 20 years, Gaska said, CB14 has met at the hall to address many important Rockaway issues: land development, new schools, beach erosion, parks etc.
Some meetings, such as those focusing on the Arverne Urban Renewal Area and the rezoning of the Rock away’s Playland property for residential development, were so well attended, according to Gaska, that the basement was set up to accommodate the overflow from the 300-person-capacity main assembly room.
Gaska, who said the post was "the meeting place in Rockaway," pointed out a number of the hall’s conveniences: it’s centrally located; handicapped accessible; can hold hundreds of people; and cost less than other meeting places. Gaska said CB14 is now looking for a new spot with the same attributes in which to hold their meetings.
At the core of the O’Connell Post’s problem is a decline in membership.
"People are not joining organizations anymore," said Honan, who added that the post welcomes new members who have served honorably during a time of conflict.
Monthly trips to St. Albans Veterans Hospital for "everyone wins" bingo and a handful of dinners held throughout the year help maintain a level of activity among the post members, but not enough to continue where they are, Honan said.
The post, particularly the second floor, is beginning to show signs of neglect. Most of the rooms, some of which are very spacious, are dusty and primarily used for storing trophies, flags, chairs, posters and other items.
The room was once occupied by a live-in caretaker was cold and empty this week. The Irving Friedman Memorial Room, dedicated on Nov ember 11, 1938, has a full-size billiard table that occupies only about 25 percent of the floor space, but there were no cues or balls in sight, and the dust on the table suggested that the room has gone unused for some time. Yet a nearby room, where the post still holds meetings, is a space worthy of a high ranking public official.
Construction on the enormous two-story building was completed in 1894. It might be hard to imagine, but in those days, Jamaica Bay lapped right under the pile-supported structure, and it was the home of the Dalcassian Fishing Club.
According to Wave Historian, Emil Lucev, the property became landlocked in the early 1920s when the bayfront between Beach 88 and Beach 116 Streets and from the Rockaway Free way to what is now Beach Channel Drive was bulkheaded and filled with sediment dredged from the bay. No longer the ideal site for a fishing club, the structure was purchased by the American Legion in 1937, which had been located on Beach 116 Street.
The post held its first dance in early July of that year, after renovating the property through the spring season. The club’s thriving membership paid off the mortgage in 1941.
Honan said the post has enlisted the help of City Councilman Joe Addabbo Jr. in its search for a city-owned property that they can obtain and develop as its new headquarters. He said the membership is interested in constructing a building that can accommodate 200 people.
"This doesn’t mean that we’re going away85 we’re still going to continue to function," Honan said.