Revitalization Effort Preserves Former Bel Air Tavern on the Square

By Benjamin Cox on June 6, 2021 at 11:50am

A tavern from Jacksonville’s past has been brought back to life as a labor of love. The Bel Air Tavern opened on March 28, 1952 and was a fixture at 217 South Sandy on the southwest corner of the square. The tavern has been closed for a number of years and the property sat vacant until Eric Hack purchased the property three years ago.

Hack says he saw the property as a viable option for a very visible business to downtown-goers: “Once we started seeing the logistics, we saw that one could drive off the square and with the considerable parking, we knew that it was a viable option to locate a business. In the southwest corner of the Square, there wasn’t too much here. It was kind of a darker area, so we were happy to bring life back to the area, restore the buildings that had been a closed ecosystem for over 20 years, and bring back some of the historic features. I think we really succeeded in turning it into a nice, social point of the Square where people are happy to visit.”

Soap Co. Coffee House moved into the address earlier this year, but renovations on the upstairs of the building continued and were recently completed. The entire upstairs has been turned into a loft apartment space in an open concept. Hack kept several pieces of the former Bel Air Tavern including a bourbon light on a newly-constructed performance stage, open face brick spaces, and remnants of the back bar and leather booth seating. Hack says this is the fourth building he’s restored in the area since 2008: “We have just had a long history with Jacksonville Main Street and Jacksonville. We started with restoring the Civil War monument and our first building. Later on, we did a second. Technically, this is our third and fourth properties because they are two separate tax properties. It was brought to our attention, and well worth it. It was a long three and a half year journey, but to bring back the historical features, the nuances, and save two more Downtown buildings was well worth it. There were additional businesses looking to buy this building and tear it down to build volleyball courts. Well, we have saved our history. We found out Friday night that these buildings were actually built in 1870, so I’m a big proponent of saving our history.”

Hack put in many of the hours on the building himself while also juggling a job with the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Hack says he wants to continue to add small additions to the building with a courtyard in the back and some stained glass lighting: “This is a place that I’d like to hang out. With the courtyard in the back, we have visions of constructing a pergola and a privacy fence. We have some vintage stained glass lights. We really want to make a unique outdoor area. We’ve got a few more upgrades. We are going to restore the front. We found under the original facade some of the original dental work, the cast iron columns. We are going to paint the entire building, decorate it more in a vintage pattern. There’s even been talk about a southern patio in the parking lot, but we will have to see. This is a labor of love. This is not a business to get rich quick. We want to keep these and we want to continue the existence of these buildings for at least another 100 years until the next caretakers take them on.”

Members of Jacksonville Main Street and the City of Jacksonville toured the building Friday night as a part of a private event that coincided with the Downtown Concert. Hack says he’s been glad to be a part of helping the downtown area of Jacksonville turn around: “We started the Civil War monument project in 2008 and that was about the time that the turnaround began to happen. Our occupancy rates at that time were really abysmal. Now, you can’t really find a building that’s really available on the Square. In a lot of ways, I think Jacksonville Main Street and the local business community have really succeeded in turning it around. Walking around during the concert on Friday night, it was fantastic seeing so many people enjoying the Downtown park and experiencing it. I’m just more than pleased with it all.”

Hack says that the members of the city and the business community who toured the building on Friday night were extremely pleased with the results and are looking forward to further developments on the building in the immediate future.