“Old Soldiers’ Home” exhibit recounts the auspicious beginnings of the West Los Angeles VA

By Stephanie Case
Back in 1887, when the only thing between Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles was a stretch of barley and lima bean fields, the U.S. Congress picked a parcel of farmland on which to build something groundbreaking: California’s first national soldiers’ home.

Among the military community, excitement was instant. George Davis, a Union veteran of the Civil War, decided he couldn’t stand another New York winter and embarked west, pitching a tent on the Veterans Affairs land before construction had even begun.

Starting in Yountville, a tiny Napa Valley town, a pack of 100 elderly soldiers trekked 500 miles south by foot to camp at the unbuilt site, hunting for food and roughing it in nature all the way.

These stories — plus many others from the West Los Angeles VA’s 128-year history — are now on display at the Santa Monica History Museum’s newest exhibition, “The Old Soldiers’ Home: A Veterans’ Community by the Sea.”

“When you come back from battle, a lot of veterans feel somewhat displaced, so [the home] was a place of belonging,” says Sara Crown, the museum’s archivist.

Thousands of veterans lived together — eating, sleeping, working and receiving medical care — on one campus. In their free time, they spent long afternoons on the golf course, shot billiards, played baseball, strolled through orchards, visited an on-site menagerie filled with birds and monkeys, prayed at the local chapel and took trolley rides to the ocean.

“There were a lot of opportunities for veterans to not just receive care, but also make a life,” says Kathryn Evans, the museum’s manager and development director.

Through the turn of the century, many local service groups sprung up around the West Los Angeles area to support soldiers at the home and at war — especially during the 1940s.

“Around that time, the connection to veterans and overseas wars was a much more shared experience,” says Evans. “Back then, you had people at home growing victory gardens and taking their ration books to the store. Everyone was doing their part; it was the popular thing to do.”

The exhibition is filled with tokens of this time period: ration books for cups of coffee, watercolor postcards with notes scribbled to soldiers abroad, black-and-white snapshots of Boy Scouts planting American flags in the VA’s cemetery.

A wide range of vintage military gear is also on display: World War II-era Army uniforms, dog tags — even a tattered pocket bible carried by a soldier through battle.

As the 20th century wore on, governmental benefits for veterans’ care began to dwindle, sparking demonstrations and rallies at VA facilities across the country.

“I think funding was an issue,” says Crown. “Our old photographs of the soldiers’ home show these really verdant, beautiful grounds with fancy buildings; but over the years, they were run down.”

Today, Crown says, things are on the upswing. This January, the West L.A. VA announced a new master plan to revitalize its campus, including building 1,200 permanent housing units for veterans, plus hundreds of short-term units for homeless veterans. In April, one of its retrofitted buildings — a “therapeutic residence” that houses 65 homeless men and women — won an American Institute of Architects Housing Award.

For veterans of today who want to see how it all began, admission to the “Old Soldiers’ Home” exhibition is free.

“We would love to have them come and see it, and maybe even add to the oral history of veterans in Southern California,” says Evans.

“The Old Soldiers’ Home: A Veterans’ Community by the Sea” is on view through Jan. 18 at the Santa Monica History Museum, 1350 7th St., Santa Monica. For hours and admission prices, visit santamonicahistory.org.