VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System
Old Soldiers Home Chapel
The Old Soldiers Home Chapel is a rare early American example of a multi-denominational chapel, a building that includes multiple chapels under one roof. In this case, there are two chapels, one for Protestants and the other for Catholics. The two chapels are separated by an interior wall that is buffered by four-inches of space intended as soundproofing, a consideration necessitated by a desire to allow both chapels to operate simultaneously so that neither faith could be said to have been given a preferential time slot.
The wooden frame Shingle Style chapel dates back to 1900 making it the oldest extant building on Wilshire Boulevard, a reminder of the important role that the VA’s predecessor – the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS) – played in the growth of the Los Angeles Metropolitan area. In fact, the Pacific Branch of the NHDVS, colloquially known as the Old Soldiers Home, was established here with a grant of land and cash by the founders of Santa Monica who anticipated that the branch would have a positive impact on the real estate prices of the surrounding area, land that had previously been used primarily for grazing livestock.
The chapel was used for religious services, weddings, substance abuse counseling, and funeral rites by both veterans and members of the local community until the Sylmar earthquake of 1971 made the building unsafe for use. The chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Although the chapel has been closed since the 1971 earthquake, the building is still largely intact and contains many of its original elements. That having been said, the almost entirely wooden structure is constantly under attack by termites and sits upon an unreinforced foundation. In other words, unless repairs are implemented soon, this national treasure may be lost forever.
Learn more about the Old Soldiers Home Chapel and the history of West Los Angeles campus of the GLA VA Healthcare System by exploring this site.
The historical significance of the Old Soldiers Home Chapel goes far beyond its distinction as the oldest extant building on Wilshire Boulevard. The chapel is an embodiment of the delicate balance between the spiritual needs of our citizens and the separation of church and state insisted upon by our Founding Fathers. The chapel is one of the earliest examples of a religious structure paid for with federal funds and is demonstrative of the great sensitivity with which our government has approached our nation’s tradition of religious pluralism.
“Something more than mere food, shelter, and clothing seems due to these men, and until adequately supplied perhaps these Homes are not all they should,” wrote U.S. Army Inspector General J.C. Breckinridge, nephew of the Vice-President whom he was named after, in his 1897 report on the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Among his recommendations for addressing this nebulous “something more” was the construction of chapels, something that Breckinridge noted Congressional appropriations failed to provide at any of the then seven branches of the National Home system. “The need for a proper place for divine worship is most felt at the younger Branches, specifically the Pacific; where an unsightly frame, that would make a poor barn at most, is used for the purpose.”
Two years after Breckinridge’s report, Congress approved $14,000 for the construction of a chapel at the Pacific Branch. Congress had traditionally shied away from funding buildings designated primarily for religious worship, afraid that to do otherwise could be interpreted as a de facto endorsement of one religion over another. Catholicism and Protestantism were at this time considered the only faiths with large enough congregations to require permanent structures. While both faiths are Christian, there are several theological differences that are reflected in the interior and exterior designs of their respective chapels in diverse ways, making a chapel designed specifically for one faith unsuitable for members of the other. At the same time, it simply wasn’t practical for the federal government to finance separate chapels for both Catholics and Protestants. In addition to being cost prohibitive, separate chapels also took up more land, a resource that Americans at the turn of the twentieth century were beginning to realize was finite. Thus, the Congressional committee that approved the funds for the chapel insisted that a way be found to accommodate both faiths.
The result was an eloquently articulated attempt at a “separate but equal” solution in the form of the Old Soldiers Home Chapel – a single wooden frame structure that housed a chapel for both Catholic and Protestant denominations. While there were other chapels within the National Home system that offered a separate sanctuary for both Catholic and Protestant denominations, the Pacific Branch’s chapel was the first federally funded chapel to be designed specifically for this purpose. While the dual chapel approach provided a way for both faiths to worship in a space that reflected their beliefs, military chapels ultimately evolved into non-denominational structures that were designed to be used by all faiths, a reflection of the ever-increasing diversity of America’s armed forces and veteran population.
The Old Soldiers Home Chapel is predominately an example of the Shingle Style popular in the late nineteenth century but also incorporates details typical of both Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival styles in a way that underscores the notion of two sacred spaces for opposing religions coexisting within the same structure. In this way, the building can be understood as a manifestation of the religious plurality that played such an important role in the development of the United States of America.
Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival were both popular styles of architecture for churches and chapels in the nineteenth century. The Gothic style in particular was favored by the NHDVS and was used for the chapels at many of the organization’s Branches. Architect J. Lee Burton designed the chapel at the Pacific Branch in a way that merged the Gothic and Renaissance Revival Styles with the Shingle Style that renowned architect Stanford White used for the original Pacific Branch building plans. The Shingle Style, named after the use of shingles that serves as the style’s hallmark, was a popular style in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The chapel’s irregular roof with wooden shingles and steep cross gables are typical of the Shingle Style. The north elevation wall is also shingled. Other Shingle Style elements of the chapel include the multi-level eaves, the strips of three or more windows, and the arched portico.
The chapel was designed so that both denominations could hold services simultaneously, a factor that required separate entrances for each chapel and the inclusion of a four-inch space between the interior wall to muffle the sound of both congregations. The door and window hardware in the Catholic chapel is brass with decorative Gothic motifs; the Protest chapel hardware is similar but with Renaissance Revival motifs. The roof is adorned with three Latin crosses and a single Celtic cross, symbols acceptable to both faiths. Leaded and art glass is installed in very few windows, all of which feature a simple textured glazing.
It is in the interior layout and the liturgical furnishings that the differences between the two chapels are most evident. The pews on the Catholic side are arranged in two columns splitting the room down the middle. Protestant theory at the time viewed such an arrangement as putting the priest or chaplain above the congregation; thus the Protestant chapel has an amphitheater style seating arrangement that was intended to reflect a more democratic theology. The liturgical furnishings were the ultimate expressions of each faith and each chapel was allowed to furnish itself as needed. This led to differences such as a confessional booth, an altar, statues and images of saints, and crucifix in the Catholic chapel, whereas the Protestant side had included a chandelier (a typical Episcopalian feature of the era) and lacked any images of saints.
The Old Soldiers Home Chapel is in urgent need of restoration. This beautiful and historically significant building is already in an advanced state of deterioration and if action is not soon taken this irreplaceable connection to our past may be lost forever. GLA is currently exploring the various opportunities to restore the chapel so that it may be enjoyed by future generations.
The status of the Old Soldiers Home Chapel as a structure of historical note requires that any restoration effort return the building to its original condition. The J. Paul Getty Museum provided a $75,000 grant in 2000 to support conservation planning of the chapel as part of Preserve L.A., a Getty program that encourages architectural conservation in Los Angeles. In conjunction with money allocated for the purpose by the VA, the Preserve L.A. grant went was used to conduct field surveys and historic document research which resulted in a Historic Preservation Plan that included a cost estimate for restoring the chapel. In a 2005 study, the total direct cost was estimated at $8 million, but given the scope and nature of the project costs could easily reach $12 million.
The Veterans Administration is currently attempted to identify civic minded partners to work with on restoring the chapel. An exploratory committee has been formed and a new non-profit organization will soon be formed to begin raising the funds needed to preserve this national treasure for generations to come.
If you are interested in helping restore the Old Soldiers Home Chapel, send VHAGLAMasterPlan@va.gov email.