American Legion Post 91 asks for help during rebuild

CAMBRIDGE — American Legion Post 91 suffered a devastating fire this past summer. A suspected lightning strike to the building started a smoldering fire under the roof. By the time the fire was discovered and extinguished, all of the roof trusses were affected and the entire interior of the building was coated with soot and fouled with smoke damage. The fire, which didn’t look like much from the outside on that smoky morning, caused $1 million of damage to Post 91, and the Legionnaires have little choice but to replace all but the block shell.

“The building was totally destroyed inside,” Tom Anderson told us. Mr. Anderson is Commander of Post 91. “Completely destroyed. We have a rather aggressive reconstruction program in place, but the price tag for putting it back, and making it a beautiful place, may run up as high as $2 million.”

We met with Commander Anderson and Vice Commander George Williams in the construction trailer on the site of the burned legion building at the foot of the Malkus Bridge on U.S. Route 50. A crew was busy inside the Post building, working on replacing the burned-out roof trusses and closing up the top of the building against the winter weather. The inside of the building is alarmingly white, sprayed over with a paint-like compound used to cover up and trap the soot and cinders that covered everything inside during the fire.

The American Legion purchased the building in 1950, when it was a car dealership. The Legion remodeled the building and have been there ever since. They have a post membership of approximately 400, plus 200 members of the Sons of the American Legion, and about 200 members of Unit 91, the wives and daughters division.

Commander Anderson showed us two conceptual drawings of the new building, designed by Tim Crosby, of Crosby and Associates, and one of them will be selected for the final design soon. The two designs both represent an improvement on the original building, but one is a “slightly cheaper version” according to Commander Anderson, with a price tag of about $1.7 million.

“We have about $1.4 million (on hand for the project),” Commander Anderson said. “We have a shortfall that appears to be about $200,000 to $250,000. We need to raise money over the next year to fill that gap. Our resources and the insurance money from the fire represent that $1.4 million. There are grants that have been applied for, there have been small, local fundraisers that have generated some resources, and we have been approved by our national organization to raise funds statewide.”

The Legion raises money by providing a social center for its members and guests, and also by making their facility available for events. Without the use of their building, they have no income coming in.

“In the interim, we’ve been exploring alternate sites, so we can get back to our hard work for the community,” the commander said.

Mr. Anderson pointed out to us that over the past five years, American Legion Post 91 has donated $250,000 each year, back to the community. “You won’t find, in Dorchester County, any other nonprofit agency that puts that much money back into the community,” he said. “Every day that we’re closed, some organization is not getting the benefits of the donations we make.”
With that in mind, the Legion has been exploring an alternate site for their work. Lately, much local talk has been given to the concept of the Legion taking over Governors Hall at Sailwinds Park, but Mr. Anderson is quick to point out that Governors Hall is not a “done deal.”

“Much of what you’ve heard or read is probably inaccurate,” he tells us. We have not signed any kind of a lease agreement with the city — but we hope to. We hope we can make this thing work. We’ve made a deal, in principal, but the devil’s in the details.”
Commander Anderson pointed out that in order to function as an event facility and a social hub, Governors Hall needs to be fully equipped, and since the auction of all the equipment inside of the building held two weeks ago, Governors Hall is now an empty shell. The Legion did bid on some of the equipment in the Governors Hall auction, and has access to other equipment needed to make the facility into a functioning venue.

“We hope to occupy Governors Hall in the next four to six weeks,” Commander Anderson said, “and get back to the business of being a functioning American Legion post, and be available for weddings and social events. However, at this point in time, because of the sale of all the equipment, we can only handle accommodations for 350 people,” he said, citing a lack of chairs and tables due to the Governors Hall equipment being sold. All of the existing equipment at Post 91 was destroyed in the fire, and the Legion is accustomed to holding events for up to 1,000 people.

The bottom line is that the Legion needs to raise money, for themselves for a change. We asked them what the community could do to help.

“We’re allowed to fundraise, according to the national organization, only in the State of Maryland,” Mr. Anderson said. “So we’ve sent out letters to all of the benevolent organizations that exist in the state, and we’re hoping they’ll help us.

“But we want the local community to know that we’re in good hands, that we’re doing fine, and we’re working in good faith with the City of Cambridge — which has been bending over backwards to accommodate us. We are on our way back, but all the help we can get to raise resources to restore this building is appreciated. But here’s my best answer for everyone asking us what they can do to help: If you are a member of Dorchester Post 91, please renew your membership and continue to support the organization. If you are not a member of the American Legion, there are three paths to membership — as a veteran, as a son of the American Legion, and the Unit 91 auxiliary. It will be the best $35 you will spend, believe me.”

Unit 91 membership is available to spouses of veterans, and the Sons of the American Legion is open to non-serving sons and daughters of military veterans going back two generations. If your father did not serve, but your grandfather did, (or mother/grandmother) you are still eligible for American Legion membership.

Commander Anderson spread out his hands over the folding table containing the concept drawings of the new building, after showing us all the improvements the rebuilding process will bring to this proud community organization. “Every day that we’re closed, the fire companies aren’t getting any money, the churches aren’t getting any money, the V.A. Clinic — we can’t give it away if we don’t make it. We need to get back to the business of doing the great work that Post 91 has done for over 50 years. And we need to get back to work.

“What we’re hoping for is a little help from our community,” he said. “And when we’re done here, we’ll put back a building that our community will be proud of, I promise you.”

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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