Landmark Decisions

John Bonavita, restaurateur and developer, says he enjoys the challenge of rehabbing old, historic structures. He spent two years and $1 million to convert an old fire station in Springfield’s South End into the Tavern restaurant. His latest undertaking is the 90-year-old former Post Office building in Westfield, an attractive but challenged site that is now home to his second Tavern.

John Bonavita says he first fell in love with the old Post Office building in Westfield in 1997. That’s when his Tavern Inn restaurant on Columbus Avenue in Springfield was in the process of being taken by eminent domain to make way for the new Basketball Hall of Fame and related riverfront developments, and he was looking for a new home for that venture.

He liked the historical and architectural aspects of the 90-year-old building — more on that later — and he really liked its location in the center of the city, as well as the growth potential of the Westfield market.

"I like old buildings," said Bonavita, with a classic bit of understatement. "And I really like bringing them back to life. I enjoy blending the past with the present, and with this building I saw nothing but great potential."

But he couldn’t make the parking — or lack thereof — work, and so he turned his attention elsewhere, specifically the long-vacant fire station on Mill Street in Springfield’s South End, which became home to the Tavern in 2000 after a year-long, $1 million renovation effort.

Bonavita didn’t forget about Westfield’s old Post Office, however, and after concluding that he wanted to build a second Tavern, his thoughts returned to the building on Broad and Main streets.

And this time, he made the parking work.

Indeed, Bonavita struck a deal with the city in late 2002 to lease him 37 spaces in a parking lot across the street from the structure and adjacent to the city’s green. Fourteen months and more than $1 million in renovations later, the Tavern-Westfield is nearly ready to open.

The facility housed a reception prior to Mayor Richard K. Sullivan’s inaugural ball in mid-January and is slated to open its doors later this month. When it does, it will become part of a growing arts and entertainment district in Westfield and a revitalization of its downtown.

It will also usher in a new era for the Post Office building, one of the city’s more enduring landmarks, which has been the site of several mostly unsuccessful ventures since the Post Office moved out in 1980, and has been vacant for the past several years.

Meanwhile, it will be an important entrepreneurial stepping stone for Bonavita, who now has a restaurant group, if you will, and is currently putting together a management team to run the enterprise. When asked if there might be a third or fourth Tavern, he said, "I never thought there would be a second — when I see an opportunity develop, I move on it."

Stamp of Approval

As he offered BusinessWest a tour of his Westfield Tavern, Bonavita, speaking over the constant roar of an electrical sander trying to bring new life to an old hardwood floor, pointed to teller windows with signs above them reading ’money orders’ and ’registry.’

"Back at the turn of the century, people did a lot more of their banking work at the Post Office," he explained, adding that he has kept the windows in their original state to provide part of the atmosphere for the restaurant.

Bonavita has learned quite a bit about old post offices (and this one in particular) in the past 15 months. He said renovating the landmark has been an extreme challenge, but he enjoys such assignments. "There are a lot of easier sites I could have chosen, believe me," he acknowledged. "But none of them had this location or this kind of history."

Bonavita first gravitated to the restaurant business 25 years ago, while working in the family’s used car dealership in Springfield. "I bought and sold cars for 11 years," he said, adding that when auto sales, and the economy in general, suffered in the late ’70s, he looked for a new business opportunity.

He opened Pub 91 in Springfield’s South End, and later opened the Tavern Inn on West Columbus Avenue, which thrived for nearly 15 years thanks to a loyal clientele.

But Bonavita was sent looking for a new home when the city took the property and several others to make way for the Hall of Fame project. And while Bonavita desired a location in Springfield’s South End, from which he drew many of his customers, his search took him to Agawam, West Springfield, Enfield, Conn., and Westfield, where the old Post Office was his first preference.

At the time, the site was vacant, but the subject of much speculation because it was adjacent to the former H.B. Smith boiler complex, which was soon to be demolished to make for a Stop & Shop. Andrew Crystal, vice president of O’Connell Development in Holyoke, which had acquired both the H.B. Smith complex and the Post Office site, told BusinessWest that there was a great deal of interest in the latter, especially from national restaurant chains.

"They all saw what John (Bonavita) saw," said Crystal, "an incredible structure with a lot of potential. But there wasn’t any parking, and there was no real way to acquire any." Bonavita had a purchase-and-sale agreement on the Post Office, but could not resolve the parking issue.

So he reset his sights on the South End of Springfield, and the block at the top of Mill Street, which consisted of a vacant fire station and an adjoining manufacturing facility — in rather poor condition — that housed a company which made motorcycle chains.

"The city really wanted something to happen with that block … the fire station had been vacant for nearly 30 years, and the building next door was in disrepair," said Bonavita, who told BusinessWest that he acquired the fire station from the city for a dollar and relocated the manufacturer into a building he purchased in East Springfield.

He then spent the next year rehabbing the station, built in 1894, which at that time was in horrendous condition.

"There was no heating and no plumbing," he recalled. "About 600 square feet of roof decking was completely rotted and missing, which rotted about 1,000 square feet of the second floor decking; so we had a skylight in the building — pigeons were roaming free and flying in and out."

Bonavita eventually invested more than $1 million in the building, which is now home to four offices as well as the restaurant. He acknowledged that most developers would have passed on the adventure, but he enjoys a good challenge.

Food for Thought

And he found another one in Westfield’s old Post Office, which he acquired from O’Connell in 2002 for $300,000.

He said the building lends itself well to a tavern/restaurant with its high ceilings and numerous rooms, but it needed a good deal of work to meet all of today’s codes and accessibility standards.

For example, one work area at the former Post Office — behind those teller windows Bonavita pointed out — had to be gutted to make way for a new entrance that was handicapped-accessible.

Working with the Chicopee-based architectural firm Caolo & Bienek Associates, Bonavita says he has kept as much of the original post office intact as possible, including the marble and hardwood floors, as well as the mahogany front entrance (now an emergency exit).

"They’ve really helped me tame this old building," he said of the architects, noting that the bar area maintains the arches and curved windows of the original lobby area of the post office. "We took some things and moved them or used them for different things; what we disassembled, we reassembled in other places."

The Tavern-Westfield will have a main dining room that will sit about 80, as well as a private dining room — the old postmaster’s office — that will seat another dozen. Meanwhile, as with the fire station in Springfield, Bonavita will create some office space to lease out. He said he’s already had inquiries from an engineering firm and a financial services company.

The old Post Office was adapted for several different uses after its closure. In the early ’80s, it housed a variety of small shops in an indoor-mall format. Later, a restaurant was opened in the basement area. It enjoyed initial success, but closed only a few years after opening.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the site became an antiques center, with dozens of individual vendors leasing pockets of space. The lack of parking eventually doomed that venture as well, and the building sat vacant for a number of years.

With the parking problem solved, Bonavita expects his new venture to become one of the cornerstones — figuratively speaking — of Westfield’s emerging entertainment district. Several restaurants have opened in the past few years, and Bonavita expects that in time (and not much time), the city’s depth of offerings will draw people from across the region, as Northampton currently does.

"I think Westfield can make something happen," he said. "Springfield has made its entertainment district work, and it can happen here, too."

Pushing the Envelope

As he showed BusinessWest the view from the balcony above the main lobby, Bonavita reiterated why he took on the many challenges posed by the old Post Office. "This building makes a statement," he said.

The same might be said of Bonavita’s developments, which have enabled two communities to take underutilized properties and put them back on the tax rolls and into productive use.

"I get a lot of satisfaction from doing this," he said. "It’s a labor of love."

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]