From a distance, the white exterior of the old American Legion Post 262 Hall at 5333 Hackman Road in Augusta looks fairly nondescript, but get up close and you will notice that the brackets along the roofline look sort of like music notes.
Trey Smith doesn’t know if they are original, but he feels they could be a nod to the building’s 1869 origin as the Harmonie-Verein, or Harmony Society, which was organized in 1856 by the many German immigrants who had settled in the area.
The group held “festivals and events in the language and traditions of their homeland, strengthening the sense of community and easing the harshness of frontier life,” the late historian Anita Mallinckrodt wrote in her book, “Augusta’s Harmony.”
Smith, as president of the nonprofit Augusta Heritage Foundation, which purchased the building from the American Legion last fall, is now leading the cause to restore this local landmark to its original purpose as a cultural arts center.
“Our hope is to become a small, quaint cultural arts center in the midst of wine country,” said Smith. “We want to have a 360 wholistic menu of what cultural art centers do. We are going to have dance, theater, music, culinary, gallery offerings, as well as allow the building to be rented for events like weddings.”
The Foundation will hold a kick-off fundraising event Saturday, March 14, beginning at 7 p.m. with a multimedia presentation featuring lots of old photos and interviews and a discussion on future plans and opportunities, followed by live music from the Texas Giants, food and refreshments.
Everyone is invited to attend. Admission is free, but people will be able to make donations and pledges to support the Harmonie-Verein.
“We are asking the public and businesses to participate in joining hands with us,” said Smith.
“It’s a chance to hear from the leadership team where the Augusta Heritage Foundation stands with the property and what is the overall vision long term. There will be time to collaborate . . . and then we’re going to party like it’s 1869.”
Augusta Heritage Foundation
The Augusta Heritage Foundation was established in 2015 with the sole purpose of saving the old Harmonie-Verein.
The American Legion Post 262, which had been using it as a meeting hall since at least the 1940s, maybe earlier, was looking to sell the building, but only to the right buyer.
“The motive was to keep it out of the hands of a real estate developer or someone who would just tear it down and put up something else,” said Smith, who described the Harmonie-Verein as “the most appreciated and adored building in town, partly because of what it stood for and because it’s still there after 150 years.”
A group that included Vic Brown, Randall Oaks, Mary Diehl and Ann-Renee Gargrave established the nonprofit with the intention of purchasing the property from the American Legion and eventually restoring the building to be used for a cultural arts center.
Several years ago, the Augusta Heritage Foundation entered into a rent-to-own agreement with the American Legion Post, holding events there on occasion. By last fall, the group had raised enough money for a down payment.
They purchased the Harmonie-Verein with seller financing and now owe $118,000 for the property. They are hoping to raise enough money to be able to pay that off in just 24 months.
“The reason to target this $118,000 is because it is a mortgage note held by a nonprofit, but it’s also a way for a community to be involved in a property that is very beloved,” said Smith. “If someone can only give a small donation, at least they know they were part of it. We are inviting people to be part of history, the next 150 years.”
Now that it has purchased the building, the Foundation plans to apply for federal grant money to help fund restoration of the structure, said Smith. With the building being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the group is fairly optimistic that it will be successful.
The Foundation includes a six-member board with many more volunteers who serve on sub-committees.
“Everybody is a volunteer. It’s a volunteer army,” Smith said with a laugh.
The Foundation welcomes anyone who want to join the cause, especially anyone with the skills and experience in these kinds of projects.
Smith, who only moved to Augusta a few years ago, was born the son of a cotton farmer in Louisiana. Once he and his wife moved to the area from O’Fallon, they quickly got involved with the community, and the Foundation’s effort to save the Harmonie-Verein grabbed his heart.
“The people are just awesome and that is a cause worth engaging in,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity to bring some revitalization to the area, economically.”
As president of the group, Smith plans to work on building relationships with others in the area who are involved with the cultural arts to learn from them.
“Being a newcomer, I’m still amazed at the density of high-quality talent in such a small area,” he said. “It’s a natural to return this building to its roots as a cultural arts center.”
Plans Are to Rehab the Building
Inside old Harmonie-Verein is an open hall with wooden floors and enough space for around 150 to 180 people to be seated at tables for a reception or event.
The most prominent feature of the indoor space is a barrel ceiling, which provides good acoustics for musical events, said Smith.
There is a stage that was put in next to the front door, and at some point additions were put on to the side and back of the building.
There is a full kitchen in the basement, and the Foundation has discussed eventually using it for a small cafe or snack area.
But right now the focus is on restoration. After 150 years, the building is showing its age, said Smith. The Foundation recently installed a new front door, but plans are to rehab the entire space.
“We are going to do our best to keep it like it is, but update it,” said Smith, noting plans may include moving some things around, such as where the front door is located, to create a better flow of movement.
“What we want to do is rethink the entire property,” he said. “How can we beautify it and make it practical and maybe even add some features that would be inviting, activities people can do outside.
“We want to beautify it with gardens and a sitting area, a place where you can have exhibits or seminars or something. That might mean taking down some of the trees, but we are thinking about a master plan.”
Outside, a gazebo frames the panoramic view of the river valley.
“It’s a beautiful view,” Smith remarked. “I’m sure that’s why (the founders) picked this spot.”
Economic, Community Boost
Already a number of special events are held at the hall throughout the year, including the Augusta Ramble concert series in cold weather months, Augusta Plein Air Festival and the Augusta Arts Exploration Day Camp.
But the goal is to offer much more.
“I think it will be a boost, not only to economic development, but just in the community espirt de corps,” said Smith. “It’s a good opportunity.
“People have hoped for a long time for this . . . it’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s going to be a real celebration when we pull it off.”
For more information on the Augusta Heritage Foundation, go to augustaheritagefoundation.org.