“Men Who Gave Their Young Manhood’s Years To Their Country”: A Photo-Gravure Booklet of the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Los Angeles, 1907

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On this Veterans Day, as we honor the service and sacrifices of the men and women soldiers who gave to our country through tours of duty in the several branches of the military, we feature, from the museum’s collection, a 1907 photo-gravure booklet of scenes, published by Edward C. Gird, the newsdealer at the facility, from the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers at Sawtelle, now part of the City of Los Angeles near the U.C.L.A. campus.

Upon conclusion of the Civil War and because of its massive scale, it was decided to create the National Home system because previous veteran medical care provisions were not possible to address the sheer need. In early 1865, just prior to the war’s conclusion, legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Abraham Lincoln to establish the network of homes for disabled veterans.

The first facility established was in Togus, Maine, near Augusta, in 1866 and was soon followed by ones in Dayton, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A fourth followed in Hampton, Virginia in 1870, after which it was another fifteen years before a western home was opened in Leavenworth, Kansas. The Sawtelle branch was the fifth, being created by legislation specifically designating a site west of the Rocky Mountains in 1887, followed by the appointment of a governor at the end of the year and the official opening at the end of July 1888. Eight more sites were developed through 1930 throughout the country.

The property was on sections of two ranchos, the San Vicente y Santa Monica and the San Jose de Buenos Ayres. The first, comprising 300 acres, was partly donated by Santa Monica founders and developers Senator John P. Jones and Robert S. Baker, as well as the latter’s wife Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker, who were also paid $100,000 for portions of the land. The second and donated by John Wolfskill and Mr. and Mrs. Roy Jones and comprised 330 acres. By 1907, the Home was on 737 acres.

The pamphlet’s two-page information section noted that “beautiful parks, scientifically laid out, are planted to lawns, choice trees, shrubbery and flowers, all of which lend a pleasant aspect to the surroundings.” Areas not formally landscaped or occupied by the many buildings of the complex were utilized for farming, including hay and barley for stock, fruit orchards and vegetables—the latter, of course, helping to supply food for the operation.

The document continued, when it came to structures, that “new buildings have been added from time to time, as fast as Congressional appropriations would allow; but it has been well nigh impossible to build them fast enough. The equable climate and excellent government make this Branch the mecca of thousands of veterans from all over the United States.” The structures, arranged in a horseshoe pattern, were said to be built “in a substantial, artistic manner, with every modern convenience for the veteran’s comfort and enjoyment” with park around each and “with Old Glory proudly waving on the great flag pole, they present a pleasing picture.”

It was added that the 3,000 residents were composed of

the boys in blue, who, when young, remembered their country’s call, and are to-day, in the declining years of life, resting far from the scene of strife—waiting for “taps.” One cannot help being thankful that they are safely housed and taken care of by the Nation they fought to preserve.

What followed was a description of key elements of the campus, starting with the headquarters, a two-story structure containing the officers of the governor, treasurer, and quartermaster—this latter responsible for logistical support such as supplies, equipment, clothing, food and all the necessaries for operations. The manager was Henry H. Markham, who’d served as California’s governor from 1891-1895.

The residents were housed in eleven two-story barracks, assigned a company name, clustered near the headquarters and about 200 feet long with six wards containing 200 veterans. It was added that each barrack had modern lavatories and “an abundance of hot and cold water” to “afford all the conveniences of domestic life.” A company commander with the rank of captain, was chosen from among the residents, and who saw to the needs of his fellows.

The dining hall was also two stories with a basement and the large mess hall had fifty-six tables with seating for fourteen, so that nearly 800 residents could be fed at any one time. It was noted that “two and sometimes more settings are required to serve the 1,700 and over that are served at each meal.” Here, too an officer, selected from those living at the home and denoted a lieutenant, ran the operation and resident waiters were paid for their work.

The kitchen was considered to be equipped with all the modern conveniences for “an up-to-date cuisine” and its capacity was such as to be able to feed every resident. Next to this was the bakery, which was “equipped with two of the finest ovens to be found on the coast,” while modern appliances were found for the production of bread, cake, pie and “everything needful in that line for the Home table.”

The Home medical facility was two stories, with a central three-story section, and 650 feet long, with space for 600 patients, including medical assistants and other workers. A head surgeon, four assistants, and women nurses provided care and there were offices, a dining room, kitchen assistant surgeons’ quarters, and a nurses’ dormitory. Each patient ward was under the care of a nurse. Just added was a separate building including spaces for sterilization, x-rays, and operations, “the appointments and furnishings of which are as complete as science can devise.”

For recreation there were two halls, the Ward Memorial and Markham, the latter named for the ex-governor and current manager of the facility. The former could hold 1,000 people and had a stage “with several complete sets of scenery, as well as furniture, etc., necesaary to the presentation of plays and operas, which are provided for the amusement of the veteran free.”

The latter was considered “one of the handsomest as well as most imposing structures” on the campus and included a library with a reading room and reception room to meet family and friends, as well as an assembly hall with a stage. Markham was where several Grand Army of the Republic (Union Army) posts, the Union Veteran League, the Naval Veteran Association, and a masonic fraternal order met.

A new addition was the Amusement Hall, another two-story structure, and which contained billard and pool tables on the first floor and tables on the second for cards, checkers, chess “and all the lighter games.” It was added that the campus had “an excellent brass band” comprised of twenty pieces and which played daily concerts for residents, funerals, and any public event.

Considered “the most unique structure” on the grounds was the Home Chapel, completed in 1900 and the interior which was “separated by a heavy brick wall” creating separate spaces so that “Catholic and Protestant worship in harmony,” though nothing was said about other denominations or religions.

Wadsworth Chapel, for which restoration is now being pursued.

The overall capacity was for 1,200 congregants for what was later named Wadsworth Chapel (after the facility’s first chief medical officer, Major James Wadsworth), the oldest remaining structure from the Home and which is now the subject of a restoration effort. The 1887 Fund is raising money for the project, which is to be followed by efforts for the Governor’s Mansion, Superintendent’s Home, the streetcar trolley station, and the 1932 Hoover Barracks.

Also mentioned were the power house; store and restaurant, with the latter for visitors; laundry (which cleaned 14,000 articles a week); shops for carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors and shoemakers; stables, barns; and greenhouses. There were also several “handsome residences, each of which is surrounded by an attractive park” for the governor, treasurer, surgeon, quartermaster and chaplain.

The home cemetery “is situated on a hill about a mile northeast of headquarters” and “each grave is marked by a marble headstone upon wihch is the soldier’s name and military record.” It was added that “services at a veteran’s funeral are at once beautiful and impressive.” The first burial was in May 1889 and 20 acres were dedicated for the cemetery the following year. By the early 1940s, the Bob Hope Memorial Chapel was built as was an indoor columbarium. Now known as Los Angeles National Cemetery since its early 1970s transfer to the national cemetery system, the burial grounds are on 127 acres.

After discussing the water supply (with two reservoirs with a combined capacity of about 1.1 million gallons) and rules that were “as lenient as possible, and always with a due regard to the mental as well as physical infirmities of the aging veterans,” the section ended with the statement that:

In this Branch may be found men who, in their day, have been leaders of men, not only in military but in civil life; men who gave their young manhood’s years to their country, who, having in later years, through disabilities due to war’s experience, been baffled in life’s battles, are resting during their few remaining years, not the recipient of alms, buyt on the endowment fund created by their earlier sacrifices on their nation’s altar.

Under the heading of “Information of General Interest is a list of the home’s officers and the Sunday menu for breakfast (ham and eggs being the main entree), dinner (roast beef and gravy comprising the main course) and supper—the latter being almost a snack time with stewed fruit, coffee cake, bread and butter and tea.

Also provided are statistics on total admissions since the opening of the facility nearly two decades before, this number being over 8,200; the current membership of almost 3,600; and total deaths of just shy of 2,100. To show the scale of supplying the residents, one meal’s staples in the main dining hall included 45 pounds of coffee, 775 pounds of beef, 650 pounds of fish, 600 pounds of potatoes, 200 pounds of rice, 262 dozen eggs, 475 pounds of ham, and over 275 loaves of bread. Amounts of ingredients used for plum pudding, coffee cake and apple pies (512 of these for 2,300 persons) were also listed.

The photogravures by The Albertype Company of New York are fascinating, showing the officers, headquarters and band stand; postoffice and newsstand; Dining Hall; the 1901 visit of President William McKinley; the Chapel; Markham Hall; the barracks; residences; auxiliary buildings; the Hospital including interiors the cemetery; and general views of the campus.

The booklet is a remarkable review of what is also frequently known as the National Soldiers Home or the Veterans Home and which became part of a veterans’ bureau established in 1921 just after the end of the First World War. In 1930, a revamping led to the formation of the Veterans Administration and, a half-century later, a reorganization culminated in the Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affiars.

In the post-World II era, the emphasis in veterans’ health care shifted away from institutionalization to V.A. hospitals, care at home and other services. Most of the National Home structures were razed in the 1960s and Interstate 405 was built through the middle of the tract. What is left now comprises the West Los Angeles Medical Center of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

This souvenir pamphlet and photographs from the Homestead’s holdings are documents of the Home’s operation during the late 19th and early 20th century and we’ll share more of the images in future Veterans Day’s posts on this blog.

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