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Whatever Happened to the Old Soldier’s Home at West LA VA?

Soldiers Home photos

Before the West LA VA Medical Center, and before the Department of Veterans Affairs even existed, the West LA VA campus was serving Veterans as the Western Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

Originally known as the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, the National Homes system was established “for the relief of the totally disabled officers and men of the volunteer forces of the United States," as stated in the bill establishing the homes, which was passed on March 3, 1865. The system’s official title was changed by Congress in 1873 because of the negative connotation of the word “asylum” and that it did not accurately reflect the true nature of these facilities.

The first asylum opened in Togus Springs, Maine, in 1866 as the Eastern Branch. Others quickly followed to serve the thousands of wounded Civil War Veterans who could no longer secure and sustain stable employment due to their injuries.

“Men were issued blue uniforms and loosely followed Army regulations. Upon admission, each Veteran was given a member number and assigned to a company. A company sergeant oversaw each company. The days were regulated with bugle calls waking the men in the morning, calling them to the dining hall, and putting them to sleep at night,” writes Trevor K. Plante, a reference archivist in the Old Military and Civil Records unit at the National Archives and Records Administration. Plante specializes in 19th- and early 20th-century military records.

The typical menu at branch homes in 1875 consisted of staples like boiled ham, potatoes, roast mutton, brown bread & butter, fruit, tea and coffee. Yum!

Retired soldiers living at the homes had to abide by strict rules, just as if they were still in the service. Those who disobeyed were fined. Before Congress approved a dedicated funding source for the National Homes system, those fines were the main means of financing operations.  

Not long after the Eastern Branch opened, it became clear that a Pacific Branch was needed to help house Mexican War Veterans and the more than 6,000 Union Civil War Veterans living on the Pacific Coast, “many of whom [were] destitute and [in need of] government care as much as disabled soldiers and sailors residing east of the Rockies,” wrote historian Judith Gladys Cetina in “A History of Veterans Homes in the United States.”

Westward Expansion

Congress appropriated $150,000 for the construction of a Pacific Branch in California. Then the fight began to see which real estate speculators and civic leaders could entice the Soldiers Home Board of Managers to locate the branch near their budding cities and proposed communities.

In those days landing a Soldiers Home, and the constant supply of goods, services, and labor necessary to build and operate a branch, was seen as a financial boon for cities and those who owned large tracts of land adjacent to prospective sites, according to Patrick Kelly, author of “Creating a National Home: Building the Veterans Welfare State.”

The pensions Veterans received also helped inject a steady supply of cash into the local economy.

More than 70 offers for the Pacific Branch came pouring in, the most generous one including a donation of several hundred acres of undeveloped rural land 14 miles west of Los Angeles, owned by Sen. John P. Jones of Nevada, his business partner Col. Robert Baker, and his wife, Arcadia Bandini Stearns de Baker, who was said to be the wealthiest woman in California at that time.

The Bakers and Jones founded the city of Santa Monica, Calif., in 1875. Stearns de Baker would eventually buy her husband out, taking full ownership of all his land holdings. The three had big dreams for their new city, one of which included turning its beautiful bay into an industrial seaport.

Another was securing the location of the Pacific Branch near their planned developments, wrote Cheryl Wilkinson in “The Soldiers’ City: Sawtelle, California, 1897-1922,” which details the significant role Union soldiers played in the evolution of West Los Angeles.

Jones and Stearns de Baker partnered with other real estate interests and ultimately offered the Soldiers Home Board hundreds of acres of land, a guaranteed water supply and $100,000 in cash for landscaping and other improvements to the grounds of what is now today the West LA VA campus.

The Early Days

The Pacific Branch opened in 1888. Civil War Veteran, Private George Davis, not willing to put up with another New York winter, is reported to be the first resident of the new home. Many soon followed. There were a reported 500 Veterans living on site shortly after it began official operations. Among the first members were men from the state soldiers’ home at Napa, who walked from northern California to the new facility, according to an extensive assessment of Soldier’s Homes for national historic landmark recommendations, written by Suzanne Julin.

Julin goes on to describe the early days of the Pacific Branch:

By the end of the year, barracks, a mess hall, and the hospital were completed, and within four years the branch included additional barracks, staff quarters, and auxiliary buildings. Prominent architect Stanford White is credited with designing the original Shingle style frame barracks and may have designed other original buildings as well; the firm of Peters and Burns appears to have served as supervising architects.

By 1892 the Pacific Branch held five barracks, a headquarters building, the mess hall, residences for the branch governor and surgeon, laundry, hospital, farmer’s house and barn. The frame buildings were characterized by large open porches that extended the width of the buildings.

Landscape design transformed the site from its treeless state. An irrigation system aided in the development of orchards and vegetable gardens which helped provide food for the institution. Curving roads through the grounds were highlighted with plantings of pines, palm trees, and eucalyptus groves. An attempt to create an artificial lake on the property failed when heavy rains washed it out. A 1901 lithograph shows winding drives in front of the impressive collection of Shingle Style barracks bordered by manicured round shrubs and waist-high palm trees. Few traces of the original landscape plan are evident, although numbers of century-old palm trees remain.

The Pacific Branch served as an attraction for both tourists and local real estate speculators. In 1904, the Pacific Branch became part of the “Balloon Route,” a popular tour of local attractions conducted by an entrepreneur who escorted tourists via a rented streetcar. In 1905, the Los Angeles Times ran an ad for the new Westgate Subdivision, owned and promoted by the Santa Monica Land and Water Company, which the original donors of the VA land held an interest in. Residential lots and larger tracts were for sale on this land, which adjoined “the Beautiful Soldier’s Home on the West.”

By 1919 the branch included 91 buildings and could accommodate 2,300 members.

The Beginning of the End of Soldiers Homes

Following World War I, which created nearly 5 million Veterans, over 204,000 of whom would end up disabled, medical treatment for our nation’s heroes became a national priority. The great war led to significant advancements in healthcare, enabling more Veterans to return to their families and to society. No longer were many war injuries completely debilitating thanks to new treatments.

“Of course, it was critical for the health of soldiers to address their injuries, but it was also essential to heal as many soldiers as possible to help them reestablish the post-war workforce. It was as much an economic issue as it was a health or humanitarian one,” wrote journalist Katie Nodjimbadem in a 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, “How World War I Influenced the Evolution of Modern Medicine.”

When President Hoover signed Executive Order 5398 on July 21, 1930, to create the Veterans Administration (precursor to the Department of Veterans Affairs), he abolished the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and its Board of Managers. The network of Soldiers Homes was renamed The Bureau of National Homes and brought under the management of the Veterans Administration. That signaled the beginning of the end of the Soldiers Homes system as it was originally intended.

Many of the structures still standing today at the West LA VA campus were neuropsychiatric hospital buildings constructed between 1937 and 1946 to help treat psychological illness, now commonly referred to as PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Back then it was referred to as “shell shock.”

The influx of Veterans following World War II put even more of a focus on the Veterans Administration medical system and furthered the transition of Soldiers Homes into medical facilities. Medical research became an important component of the healthcare provided on the campus after WWII. VA formed a partnership with the UCLA Medical School in 1947, and four buildings on the north campus were renovated to house research space for VA and UCLA doctors.

In an LA Times article detailing the history of the campus, VA officials said the campus was occupied by roughly 5,000 Veterans around the time of the Korean War. That would represent the Soldiers Home’s peak population. Subsequent news articles started to refer to the campus not as a Soldiers Home, but medical facility, with Veterans being cared for in the Domiciliary Program, a long-term residential rehabilitation program that evolved from the Soldiers Home model. The DOM, as the program is commonly known today, is an active clinical rehabilitation and treatment program for Veterans integrated with mental health treatment.

Congress via Public Law 85-857, enacted on Sept. 2, 1958, officially cemented this structural evolution when it completely revamped the Veterans Administration and ultimately did away with the Soldiers Home system. This law established the modern-day Veterans benefits system. No longer would the VA be authorized to construct and manage permanent housing for Veterans, but instead the agency’s focus narrowed to providing healthcare, benefits, and cemetery services to Veterans.

The Amendments and Repeals within Public Law 85-857 explicitly repeal “The Act of March 2, 1887,” which authorized the establishment of a Pacific Branch of the NHDVS, at what is now the West LA VA campus.

In the 1960s and 1970s the VA ceased accepting new long-term residents at the West LA VA property. Instead, Veterans were being provided rehabilitative services to help them transition back into society. Social workers were brought in, along with clinical and counseling psychologists and job training therapists. VA care became much more focused on giving Veterans the tools to return to the “outside world” rather than risk them becoming institutionalized at the medical center. 

The current West LA VA Medical Center (Building 500) opened in the late 1970s. Over time the only Veterans living at West LA VA were those receiving medical care in an inpatient residential setting like the DOM. In order to rest your head on campus, you had to be participating in a VA program designed to return you to the outside world. 

Creating a Veteran Community

That began to change again after Congress, recognizing the need to create more Veteran housing and provide VA with the tools necessary to accomplish that mission, enacted the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016, Public Law 114-226 (West LA Leasing Act). Not only did the West LA Leasing Act grant VA the authority to enter into various types of land use agreements on the West LA VA campus, but most importantly it provided VA with the ability to develop supportive housing through the execution of enhanced-use leases (EULs) on the West LA VA campus. 

This action aligned with VA’s embrace of the Housing First model, which is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. There is a large and growing evidence base demonstrating that Housing First is an effective solution to homelessness. People in a Housing First model access housing faster and are more likely to remain stably housed.

The Housing First approach manifested in Building 209, which was renovated by VA in 2013 to serve as a mental health residential rehabilitation treatment program. Believing it would better serve the Veteran population as permanent supportive housing rather than a clinical residential program, VA in 2017 contracted with developer Shangri-La Industries to operate Building 209, making it the first EUL on the West LA VA campus. Case management services for the 54 units of permanent supportive housing are provided by Step Up on Second.

As of April 2023, there were 233 total permanent supportive housing units available for homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families on the West LA VA campus. New construction has also commenced for three more buildings providing an additional 264 Veteran units with completion set for the end of 2024, which will bring the total permanent supportive housing on the West LA VA campus to nearly 500 Veteran units. And there are hundreds more on the way.

A minimum of 1,200 permanent supportive housing units are planned for the West LA VA campus, part of a Master Plan to create a fully connected and supportive Veteran community with the support of partnerships, much like the old Soldier’s Home system.

As the needs of Veterans have evolved, so has VA, adapting to better serve those who have served their country in our time of need. Given that Veteran homelessness is a significant concern and the need for more affordable housing is great, Congress, VA, and community partners have taken significant steps to provide homes for Veterans.