Veterans battle for space in Los Angeles' renovated Patriotic Hall
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Members of the Los Angeles wartime veterans group never thought they would end up in a home-front fight.
That's what is happening at Patriotic Hall, however, as American Legion leaders battle to stay in the place they have called home for 87 years.
Los Angeles County is wrapping up a $45.4-million renovation of the 10-story neo-Italian Renaissance landmark at 1816 S. Figueroa St. and is preparing to reopen it for use by veterans' organizations.
But the American Legion and a dozen other veterans' groups worry that they won't be getting their old office space back.
Instead, they say they have been told that they are being shuffled off to the hall's basement, where they will be crammed into cubicles erected in a former dining room.
"Little cubbyholes are not where these groups belong," said Jay Morales, a life member and adjutant of Patriotic Hall's original American Legion post.
The American Legion was the hall's first tenant in 1925. Offices for local legion posts and the organization's county council were located on its eighth floor. Legionnaires used a large first-floor assembly hall off an ornate, domed lobby for ceremonies and club rooms on the second, third and fourth floors were used for smaller meetings. A gymnasium on the top floor could be turned into a ballroom for legion dances.
The legion's space included the Wilson Room, where Jennifer Beals was filmed in the "maniac" dance scene for the 1983 movie "Flashdance."
Other veterans' groups also became long-term tenants. Two local chapters of Disabled American Veterans had offices there. So did American Veterans (AMVets), Jewish War Veterans of the U.S., the Filipino Veterans Foundation, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the Horn of Plenty veterans food collection service, the Brotherhood Rally of All Veterans Organizations (BRAVO) and the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
"The Disabled American Veterans had the entire seventh floor before. Now they're going to be in a 9-foot-square cubicle in the basement," said Morales, a retired banker and former Marine air intelligence officer who served three tours in Vietnam.
Designed by a coalition of local architects, the building, now called Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, was built by the county as a memorial to military service members who had fought in World War I and earlier wars. Over the years, its tenants have aided veterans from World War II, the Korean War and conflicts in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The organizations were temporarily booted out in 2006, when the county set out to install new air conditioning and heating systems, new plumbing, telecommunications equipment and a new parking lot. The renovation project is expected to be finished in about a month.
Consolidation of the various groups in the basement space once known as the Gen. Jimmy Doolittle Room had been rumored for months, according to legion leaders.
Then, on June 4, they said, county Department of Military and Veterans Affairs head Joseph N. Smith, a retired Marine colonel, confirmed the relocation plans at a tenants' meeting held at the nearby Auto Club of Southern California Building.
Attendees said that Smith disclosed that a group he helped found in 1992, U.S.VETS, would be getting an entire floor of the hall and other floors would be used by the county's departments of Mental Health and Public Social Services and the U.S. Department of Labor. U.S.VETS provides housing for homeless veterans and other services.
Smith did not respond to inquiries from The Times. Jan Takata, a senior manager in the county's chief executive office, denied that the hall's various floors have already been divvied up, however.
"We're working on a space allocation plan. Nothing has been finalized. There's a lot of misinformation out there," said Takata, who plans to meet with the tenants over the next month.
There will be cubicles set up in the basement and elsewhere in the hall for tenants, he acknowledged. "We lost a lot of usable space because of the renovation. We lost a lot of square footage."
Legion officials attempting to inspect the new basement facilities last week were turned away by representatives of the construction company handling the renovation work.
Outside the hall's entrance, PCL Construction Services project manager Matt Mundy and project safety director Albert Valenzuela intercepted Morales and former American Legion state commander Hugh Crooks Jr., a onetime Army infantryman who fought in Vietnam.
Both project officials are Marine veterans, they said, and are sympathetic to groups that have called the hall home. "We can't let you in until the county approves," Valenzuela apologized.
When might that be? "I defer that to somebody else," Mundy replied.
American Legion leaders said they are prepared to go to court if necessary to get their post's original eighth-floor space back. They said state law guarantees veteran groups' continued use of a memorial hall unless the organization "abandons" the structure — something the legion has not done.
The legion just wants things to get back to normal, said Joey Castro, a retired human resources specialist who has frequented events at the hall since the age of 10 as a member of Sons of the American Legion.
"The temporary legion office is now in a county welfare building. People visiting the office have to line up with welfare recipients and go through a metal detector to get in," Castro said.