Through the Viewfinder: Photos of the National Soldiers’ Home, Sawtelle, Los Angeles, 1910s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was known officially as the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers, with sites across the country, and it opened in 1888 on land donated by John Wolfskill, orange grower and son of early American settler William Wolfskill; former United States Senator from Nevada, John P. Jones, also the prime founder of the city of Santa Monica; and Arcadia Bandini Stearns Baker, member of a prominent Californio family, widow of merchant and land baron Abel Stearns from whom she inherited a large estate, and wife of Robert S. Baker.

Situated on over 700 acres, the facility had barracks designed by prominent architect Stanford White, a distinctive shingle-style chapel and streetcar depot by J. Lee Burton, and a host of other interesting structures, with expansive and meticulously landscaped grounds, and a large cemetery.  Yet, it was operated much like a military encampment with barracks, a mess hall, uniforms, enforced Army rules (though not as stringent as when the men were in the service), and the need to apply for a pass to “go on leave.”

A Barracks At The Federal Soldiers Home Sawtelle Los Angeles 201
The main barracks at the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers, established in the Sawtelle district of Los Angeles near Westwood and Santa Monica, in 1888.  This and other photos below are from the 1910s and are from the Homestead’s collection.

For thousands of veterans who had physical and mental disabilities, the facility was home for decades and tonight’s post features several photographs from the Homestead’s collection of structures at the home, all dating from the 1910s.

The concept of providing homes for disabled soldiers was an outgrowth of the Civil War, which involved an unprecedented number of American men in uniform and, consequently, an enormous number of veterans who needed assistance in subsequent years.  A bill was passed by Congress in March 1865 for a National Asylum for Volunteer Disabled Soldiers, just before the surrender of the Confederates at Appomattox in Virginia ended the national nightmare.

A Barracks At the Nation Soldiers Home Sawtelle Los Angeles 2011
Another building at the site, now a VA Healthcare facility, with most of the 19th century buildings torn down in the 1960s.

The following year the first home opened in Maine, soon followed by others in Ohio and Wisconsin.  Subsequently, a dozen more branches were established, including the one in Sawtelle, for a time an incorporated city before it was annexed into the City of Los Angeles.  In 1873, the word “asylum” was dropped in favor of the more hospitable and less stigmatizing “home.”

The emphasis on a more “homey” environment was enhanced by the addition of many recreational components, with games, entertainment, libraries and other elements introduced over the years.  The Los Angeles Pacific Railroad, later part of the Pacific Electric Railway system, included the home as part of its famed “Balloon Route,” so named because of its shape, with residents able to use the system, but tourists also visited and often had their photos taken on the steps of the main administration building (the Homestead collection has a few of these, as well.)

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The hotel and an adjacent building at the facility.

For the first several years, funding for the homes came from court-martial fines and forfeitures from desertions, but this was clearly inadequate, so Congress began making appropriations by the mid-1870s.  Just after the opening of the Pacific Branch, pension laws were loosened so that more soldiers were eligible for admission.

By the end of the 19th century, it was reported that over 100,000 soldiers were cared for in the entire system, almost all from the Civil War, though there were a few from the Mexican-American War and the recently concluded Spanish American War.  Notably, black soldiers, who only comprised about 2% of those served although they totaled about 10% of Union army service members, lived in segregated housing and ate separately at the mess hall.

Ward Memorial Hall National Soldiers Home Sawtelle Los Angeles 2
Ward Memorial Hall, used for presentations, lectures and as a theater.

In the post-World War I era, changes were underfoot to massively overhaul the entire system of dealing with the nation’s veterans.  For example, native American veterans were permitted to receive services by legislation passed in 1919 and women veterans became eligible for services four years later.  In 1928, militia and national guard veterans were also covered.  The government also moved to develop war risk insurance, public health service, and vocational education programs.

This led to the formation, in 1921, of the Veterans Bureau.  In 1930, the soldiers’ homes, along with that bureau and a pension bureau, were placed under the auspices of the new Veterans Administration (revamped in the late 1980s as the Department of Veterans Affairs, a Cabinet level department, and, at the Pacific Branch, a new hospital, the Wadsworth, opened in 1927 replacing the earlier Barry facility.

By that time, there were some 20,000 veterans being served in the home system, only about 3.5% were from the Civil War (which concluded 65 years previously), while nearly a quarter were from the Spanish-American War.  The vast majority were from the significant mobilization of Americans for the First World War, a little over a decade before.

Markham Hall Federal Soldiers Home Sawtelle Los Angeles 2011.152
Markham Hall, which stood out architecturally for its neo-classical stylings, was a library and named for ex-California governor and first Pacific Branch home administrator Henry H. Markham.

As the 20th century progressed, the emphasis for veterans was less about residential care at homes and more about health services and other programs.  Most of the 19th century buildings at the Sawtelle home were torn down during the 1960s, mirroring in a way the destruction of similar era structures in downtown Los Angeles as part of urban renewal.  The construction of Interstate 405 divided what was left of the original acreage and more recently the facility was reconstituted as what is now the West Los Angeles Medical Center of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

These photos are among a group in the museum’s holdings of the Pacific Branch home and reflect an important part of our region’s military history, though few who drive by the VA facility today know much about its rich history.


5 thoughts

  1. Fascinating images. I just discovered I have an ancestor who lived here. Jefferson Joseph Thompson was originally from Warren County, Ohio. His wife and son went with him to California.
    Are these buildings all gone?

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