Crumbling historic Wilshire chapel may be at risk

LA Observed photo of the chapel on the VA reservation near West LA.

The charming and very unusual chapel facing Wilshire Boulevard on the VA campus in West Los Angeles looks worse every time I check in on it. More peeling paint, more deteriorating boards. Though it is now a faded off-white, in old colorized postcards from the early 1900s the chapel is usually shown as darker brown or red. The chapel opened in March 1900 on the property of what was then the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and Sailors. The site, usually just called Soldiers' Home, California on maps and in newspaper stories of the day, was created by an act of Congress and opened in 1888 on land donated largely by U.S. Sen. John Percival Jones of Nevada, who lived in a mansion facing the ocean bluffs in Santa Monica. The facility housed hundreds of Civil War and Indian War veterans in wooden stick-and-shingle barracks, long before Washington created the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs.)

The most unusual feature of the chapel building, designed by J. Lee Burton, is that it actually held separate Protestant and Catholic sanctuaries, separated by a brick wall. The two denominations had their own entrances and the architectural styles of the two sides were even distinct. The structure shows up in photographs of President William McKinley's visit to the Soldiers' Home on May 9, 1901, four months before he was assassinated in Buffalo, NY.

At the time the chapel was constructed, the city of Los Angeles street called Wilshire Boulevard did not yet reach so far west. Only later would Wilshire be extended across the VA land and connect on the ocean side with Jones' Nevada Avenue, which had its name changed to Wilshire. Now that all the 19th century homes are gone from Wilshire Boulevard's original section near MacArthur Park, the chapel may be the oldest building that faces Wilshire.

A news story today in the LA Times says that hundreds of landmarks on VA land in the U.S. "are at risk of being permanently abandoned or demolished due to lack of maintenance and the agency's failure to comply with federal laws to protect historic buildings, according to a new study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation." The chapel and a former train depot structure are the most threatened buildings on the VA campus here. Tourist trains and Red Cars used to stop at Soldiers' Home, California, where the old men in white beards and blue uniforms would pose for visitors.

McKinley note: During his 1901 visit to Los Angeles, McKinley reportedly stayed at the home of LA Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis. The home was at the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Park View Street; after Otis' death, the home became the first campus of the Otis Art Institute. The 1920 statue of General Otis on the edge of MacArthur Park points across the intersection toward his former home.

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