The question is posed, in song, in the holiday movie classic “White Christmas.”
“What can you do with a general,
When he stops being a general?
Oh, what you can you do with a general who retires?
The same can be said for a funeral home.
More:Elliott-Hamil Funeral Home, downtown since 1933, closing Hickory Street location
In June 2019, Elliott-Hamil Funeral Home at the corner of North Sixth and Hickory streets closed.
The downtown business began in 1933 and relocated in 1948 to what would be become its final resting place at 542 Hickory St. The site originally was a residence.
A for sale sign went up.
But, most passing by mused, what do you do with a site designed to be a funeral home, with a chapel and the facilities needed on site to prepare a body for a service as well as for burial or cremation?
More recently, no single use was to be found for the Abilene Reporter-News building downtown, and it currently is being razed.
And there was this stipulation: The new owner of the Hickory Street property could not operate a funeral home.
And so, the pastel yellow building sat there.
Until four guys came along with an idea.
Why not transform it completely to a multi-use facility, centered on being an event venue?
Why not turn the chapel into a bar, in good taste, of course.
It was an bold idea. But this fall, a former funeral home became Peacock Patio.
About $700,000 has been put into this project.
Here’s how that happened.
These four guys brought various talents to the table, they came up with a plan. A unique one, at that.
The Tim is Tim Smith, who has taken the lead in developing the SoDA (South of Downtown Abilene) District. Colby Marcee opened KAO Bar there, while Mitch Barnett brings local real estate experience. J.C. Eagle is skilled woodwork crafting and remodeling.
“I think it was Tim who said we should take a look at this,” Barnett said.
“The four of us were planning to do a project elsewhere,” Smith said. “Different project. I just couldn’t get comfortable with the level of risk that was going to be. My eyes literally popped open in the middle of the night. It was literally not this one, but this one would be great.”
It had been on the market for a while, true.
As a broker, Barnett could see why.
“There are some rooms in there that were very interesting,” he said.
That drew some laughs.
“A little dark,” he said.
After all, it was a funeral home and there were things that need to be done out of the public eye.
The site also takes up a city block.
So it would take reimagining.
“It could not a be funeral home and it could not be a flower shop,” Smith said. “Elliott-Hamil didn’t want to create new competition by opening the facility as it was.”
Elliott-Hamil Funeral Home is located on U.S. Highway 277.
“Fortunately, we had no desire to do that. No desire at all,” he said.
Smith pitched his idea to his three partners.
“It didn’t really take much convincing at all,” he said. “I said two things – new hotel they’re about to dump $80 million into right across the street, and I brought up the parking.
“I threw out some ideas of what we could do … general ideas of what we could do with the property.”
The Peacock Patio project is completely different than what the group was looking at previously, Smith said.
Marcee said 2 acres by the downtown hotel that is scheduled for completion this spring was an opportunity too good to pass up.
“Whatever we ended up doing, it was a great investment. We just took it to a whole other level,” he said.
Smith said Marcee’s success with KAO Lounge inspired the Peacock Patio bar idea.
It turned out the chapel was converted to that use.
“Quite an adaptive reuse project,” Smith said.
The group is as proud of turning the funeral home into studio and office space – not for them but for those in the community.
“All but one of our tenants are female entrepreneuers,” Barnett said. “It’s not your traditional office building.”
Business include an esthetician, three therapists, two salons, a woman who specializes in eyelashes and another who has a marketing company. Another offers insurance while another is a high-end tattoo artist.
Most are appointment-only.
“We purposely sought tenants that would activate the property, rather than, say, it being a lawyer’s office,” said Smith, seated in the bar with his three partners. “We did our design on who we wanted there.
“Make a funeral home an art gallery that happens to be an office building. Next door, all the walls are filled with art by local artists.”
The space includes Co-Working at Peacock Patio, an upstairs room of about 1,500 square feet with seating.
It is a sort of common room that can be used 24/7, Barnett said. If someone doesn’t want to work at home, he or she can set up there for $150 a month.
“It’s their space to come and go as they please,” he said.
It’s also a chance for networking.
“It has turned into a mixed-use property all the way around,” Marcee said.
Already underway is a monthly guest speaker program. Smith did the first one.
“They’re called Tim Talks,” Marcee said, referring to the popular Ted Talks, at which ideas are presented to be shared but under 20 minutes in length.
“We had 25 small-business owners show up. I was surprised,” Smith said. “It ended up being a small-business therapy session. It was a really good discussion, not just me standing up there like talking to a high school classroom.”
Marcee said the challenges and benefits of small business were batted around.
Josh Radar of Firehouse Fitness is the next speaker.
Peacock Patio is open to public use. Weddings, for example. Or to watch a football game.
And just to be out on the town. Essence of Soul Food is the Peacock Patio food partner. When the weather is nice, weekend brunches are scheduled Saturdays and Sundays.
Peacock Patio is open Thursdays-Mondays, and until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Marcee said the guys pored over dozens of designs for the chapel side of the facility. There was even the thought of Airbnb use. How about an Olympic-size pool?
“We scaled that back to a fountain,” Smith said, drawing laughs.
“It has been a big collaboration from the four of us,” Marcee said. “It was like, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ See what the city says. Are we allowed to?
“The property grew organically. It wasn’t like this is the exact plan we’re going to do. It was we are going to revitalized this corner of Hickory Street and see what we can do with it.”
“They’re creepy and they’re kooky
Mysterious and spooky
They’re all together ooky
The Peacock family.“
There is no Fester or Morticia, Just Mitch, Tim, Colby and J.C.
How did these four guys align for this project?
Everyone laughed at once, suggesting an interesting path to Hickory Street.
Smith met Marcee at the first event at the SoDA District Courtyard. Marcee then was bartending at nearby Amendment 21. That led to a partnership for KAO Lounge.
Smith has known Eagle for five or six years, he said.
“The building that now is KAO Lounge and Oak Street Arbor, I didn’t own it but I renting a shop there where I did all my carpentry and cabinetry work,” Eagle said.
He met Smith when Smith began his efforts on the south side of the Union Pacific tracks.
“I didn’t know him but he let me build a really expensive dining room table,” Eagle said.
“Everyone loves it,” Smith said.
“We developed a friendship pretty quickly,” said Eagle, ho met Marcee when he did the finish carpentry at Amendment 21. “I’ve known Tim the longest, but I’ve really gotten to know Mitch and Colby more on this project.”
Smith said, “I knew we would work well together. We’re all local, and we all have such different skill sets. I knew this could be a really dynamic partnership.
“And it has been.”
Thousands of decisions had to be made during the past 14-15 months, he said.
“Only a thousand?” Marcee interjected, to laughter.
“We haven’t had any blowup,” Smith said.
The biggest frustrations have been working with contractors at times, supply issues – some windows took a while to arrive, for example – and getting permits for remake 12,000 square feet of space.
“There were things that slowed us down,” Barnett said.
But for the most part, the project moved forward on the back end of the pandemic.
“The stress wasn’t nearly as great as when Colby and I opened KAO,” Smith said. “We used that time to build when everyone else was deciding not to. I asked him what we were going to do.”
Said Marcee, “We were either going to pump the brakes or floor it. “
The chose to hit the accelerator.
While the Peacock Patio venture was a new idea, incorporating the peacock was not.
‘It’s colorful. It’s bold. It likes to show its feathers,” Marcee said. “And, it’s marketable.”
He mentioned that Mitch’s sister, Paris, years ago created peacock artwork, which is duplicated on two doors at the Patio. So the peacock theme was waiting for its day, and this project was it.
“I wanted something that was green with a patio,” Smith said. “The patio with the fountain is kind of our draw. I felt that had a good ring to it, Peacock Patio.
That’s the name for venue side of the property. Peacock Plaza is the name of the office side.
Over the years, businesses in Abilene have not had the greatest working relationship with the city.
How was that with this project?
Marcee remembered the struggles Smith had when turning the former Boys & Girls Club into what now is the SoDA District Courtyard.
“It was more of the Firehouse Fitness days that I was battling,” Smith said, laughing. “In 2011 and 2012, when I was doing the Firehouse Fitness project, I viewed the city as enemy. There is no other way to put it. I never set out to be defiant but the way I want to do things is more on the creative side and their process didn’t allow for creativity.
“It’s completely different now. I believe they are in the small-business owners’ corner.”
Smith said City Manager Robert Hanna, who was hired in April 2015, has told him, “Tim, I want my employees to find a way to say yes. And they do that now. “
“They are wanting to work with small-business owners or people trying to open their small business,” he said. “They are trying to work to make Abilene better.”
Barnett said there weren’t any issues with the city on the Peacock Patio project.
But there is way to go about it.
“Abilene has its own little process with things,” Marcee said. “And you have to learn that process to get everything you need without being in violation of something. There’s a lot of little stuff that most people don’t think about.”
The pushback to transforming a funeral home held in high regard into something called Peacock Patio was minimal.
“I got two Facebook messages on the negative side,” Smith said. “My response was delete, block.
“I expected more.”
Marcee said “everyone has been very accepting. I think the thing that helps is that is was closed for three years or so. Especially for some of the older crowd. ‘I was at a funeral right there. I buried my grandmother, she was here.’ I think some of them are very excited about, ‘Y’all completely revitalized this space and I get to come here, hang out, watch football, eat good food.
“Abilene has a connection to this place. I don’t think there are a ton of people who are, “Oh my goodness, how could you? I think it has been more of the positive, ‘Man, I am so glad you did this. ‘”
Hamil family members were contacted.
Barnett said sent photos of the project to Cynthia Hamil, one of two daughters of John and JoAnn Hamil. JoAnn was the daughter of Pete and Mittie Elliott, who started the business.
“She was blown away and ecstatic that it’s not just sitting here, rotting away,” he said.
Former employees have been in for a drink, and peek, and “they were blown away,” he said.
The chapel no longer was an inviting space.
“It was very dingy and dark,” he said.
“It was very sad,” Marcee said.
Angela Hamil Willis, the other Hamil daughter (brother Robert in 2005 opened The Hamil Family Funeral Home on Buffalo Gap Road) was “super supportive and glad that we were going to repurpose the property,” Smith said.
“We had to swing for the fences. We had to make it so different,” Marcee said.
“We threw out the idea of playing off the funeral home for the bar side and we sat down and thought, ‘This isn’t going to be received well.'”
Said Smith, “We decided to steer away from that theme, for sure.”
“In here,” Barnett said, “we wanted to go light and bright.”
However, there is the “secret room.”
You push on one of the frames with Paris Barnett’s peacock and a door opens to what was the end of the chapel. There is a podium and, yes, eerie lighting.
It’s separate from the main bar, complete with a sound system and restroom.
“We kept a little bit of quirk,” Marcee said. “You kind of have to. We’re paying homage to what this was before.”
Smith said, “It’s a little creepy but people love it.”
It could be used for Super Bowl party, anniversaries or birthdays, the guys suggested.
Engagement party? Well, maybe.
“Every space here is reserve-able,” Marcee said.
Events to date have included a gender reveal on the outdoor patio.
“It’s like here, we are full service,” Marcee said.
Just not a funeral service.
The question is posed, in song, in the holiday movie classic “White Christmas.”