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VA History Office

 

History of VA in 100 Objects

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Telling VA's story - one to two objects at a time

If you wanted to create an album of your family’s history but were limited to 100 items, what would you put in and what would you leave out? These were the questions that the VA History staff asked in compiling the History of VA in 100 Objects virtual exhibit. The exhibit explores the history of the nation’s efforts to honor and reward Veterans for their service by spotlighting objects that tell key parts of the VA story. The objects span the centuries, from the earliest laws governing disability claims for Revolutionary War soldiers to the latest medical gear to protect VA workers and Veterans from the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibit is being published serially throughout 2022 and 2023, with new entries appearing Thursdays at the rate of one or two per week. Entries from previous weeks are available for viewing on the GALLERY PAGE. We hope you will join us as we embark on this two-year journey through VA’s past, object by object.


Object 48: Floor Plan of VA’s Historic Indoor Columbarium

By Sara Amy Leach, Senior Historian, National Cemetery Administration

1940s-era floor plan of VA’s first and only indoor columbarium at Los Angeles National Cemetery. The diagram helped visitors locate the niche holding the cremated remains of their loved one. (NCA) 1940s-era floor plan of VA’s first and only indoor columbarium at Los Angeles National Cemetery. The diagram helped visitors locate the niche holding the cremated remains of their loved one. (NCA)

In June 1941, Charles Ray Smith—aviation mechanic, Army Veteran, and past commander of the American Legion post in Gridley, California—died suddenly after a surgical procedure at age 52. His brothers and young son had the body cremated at the new crematorium at what is now Los Angeles National Cemetery. Afterward, his ashes were placed in the nearby indoor columbarium, Bay 300, Row A, “Cinerarium” 1—the first interment. Cremation was a practical choice for Smith’s family and their decision reflected the move away from casket burials on the West Coast at this time.

In the United States, cremation of the dead and interment of the ashes or cremains in above-ground structures known as columbaria grew increasingly popular in the 1920s. Before contagious disease was fully understood, cremation was touted as a sanitary way to dispose of bodies—and perhaps a necessity in a pandemic. By the time scientific advances in the 1930s disproved this idea, many Americans viewed cremation as an appealing burial option. This was particularly true in California, where one-third of all U.S. crematories were in operation. Environmentally practical and architecturally stylish columbaria became a common asset in the state’s cemeteries.  

At the Los Angeles Veterans cemetery, which opened in 1889 on the grounds of the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, the graves of Veterans who served from the Civil War through World War I filled much of the acreage. With space at a premium and cremations on the rise, VA built an indoor columbarium and chapel-crematorium in 1940-1941. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal-era agency that carried out public works projects, provided the money and the manpower for their construction. The WPA completed other improvement projects at the cemetery, landscaping the grounds, resetting headstones, and building a rostrum.

The arc-shaped columbarium, with a covered arcade or “cloister” on the front, was strategically placed midway down the cemetery’s greensward as a backdrop to the low brick rostrum. Inspired by California’s historic eighteenth-century Catholic missions, the structure incorporated “second-hand brick” with “squeezed joints,” terra cotta roof tiles, and stucco. The use of clear, insulating hollow glass block in the windows added a forward-looking material. First introduced to consumers in 1933 at the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition, glass block gained favor through the decade. 

 
External view of the Los Angeles columbarium, built in the popular Mission Revival style in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). WPA projects provided employment for millions of Americans during the Great Depression. (NCA)
External view of the Los Angeles columbarium, built in the popular Mission Revival style in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). WPA projects provided employment for millions of Americans during the Great Depression. (NCA)

 

Inside the columbarium, a central vestibule connects two wings lined with two-dozen bays. Each bay has three walls filled with niches, twelve rows from floor to ceiling that are unmistakably reminiscent of post office boxes. The niche covers are made of an early metal alloy. Skylights and clerestory windows draw in natural light to create a pleasant setting “to visit the dead,” a stark distinction from previous generations of dark, somber columbaria. The plans for the Los Angeles columbarium included a matching structure to the east, which would have created a symmetrical focal point in the cemetery, but the second structure was never realized. 

The nondenominational chapel erected by the WPA at the cemetery’s entrance provided related functions such as viewing rooms and the crematorium. The small number of chapels proposed or built at national cemeteries after World War II were short-lived. By the late 1970s, the Los Angeles chapel was used for administrative and committal-service functions, and the crematorium equipment had been removed. 

Decades after Private Smith was inurned at Los Angeles and shortly after VA assumed responsibility for the national cemetery system in 1974, the agency made outdoor columbaria a requirement at all new cemeteries. The first was completed at Riverside National Cemetery in California. By the early 1980s, they were also being built at existing cemeteries in locations unsuitable for caskets, such as hillsides and along perimeter walls. VA cremation burials had reached 9 percent, and the addition of columbaria enabled older closed cemeteries to reopen.

The future of Los Angeles National Cemetery, where available gravesites were generally depleted by 1976, has been revived with an all-columbaria tract opened in 2019 that eventually will accommodate 90,000 cremains. The need for such facilities is greater than ever, as cremation interments accounted for over 55 percent of all VA burials in 2021, just under the national rate. Meanwhile, VA is investing in its historic columbarium with a comprehensive rehabilitation project that will include a new tile roof, repairs to structural components and windows, and interior finishes. This unique building illuminates the shift in burial practices that occurred between the world wars and, like so many trends, it started in California.


Have an idea for an object? Let us know!

We have worked hard to capture VA’s complex and varied history in the exhibit, but our list of 100 objects is not set in stone. We invite readers to submit their own suggestions of objects to include in the exhibit. Send your ideas to VAHistoryOffice@va.gov. If we like your suggestion, we will write it up and give you full credit when the entry on your object appears on the website. 

CLICK BELOW for the 100 Objects gallery pages to see all previous entries in the exhibit.
OBJECTS 1-30
 OBJECTS 31-CURRENT


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