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A fading old soldier

As L.A.'s historic Patriotic Hall prepares for possible renovation, veterans groups moving out fear they'll be displaced by higher rents.

October 30, 2006|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

The veterans are withdrawing from Patriotic Hall.

For the first time in 80 years, this looming historic building in downtown Los Angeles -- once hailed as the grandest veterans memorial building in the nation -- will stand empty.

Los Angeles County, which owns the building, is studying whether to remodel the neo-Italian Renaissance-style hall on South Figueroa and 18th streets, long the home of veteran services and social groups. Now the groups' offices and records have been moved elsewhere.

Among the last to leave will be former Marine Jesse J. "Jay" Morales, adjutant of American Legion Post 8, which has had an office on the eighth floor since the hall opened in September 1926. He works feverishly in the Wilson Room, sifting through cartons that bulge with yellowed letters and photographs.

He is breathless as he tells the relics' stories, as if they are about to vanish from his hands. He worries that the county does not realize how many military artifacts -- donated over the decades by veterans, some dating to before the Civil War -- must be moved and stored with care.

"Look at this all," Morales says, tugging open a door to a narrow crawlspace.

Stuffed inside are old flags, oil paintings without protective casings, framed photographs with the glass shattered, an olive-colored uniform that reportedly was worn in World War I.

Many of the items once adorned the walls of the 10-story building, now called Bob Hope Patriotic Hall because the late comedian entertained troops housed here during World War II.

As old veterans died off, the county rented space to other groups, and the military artifacts were stored out of sight.

Morales says that items are missing, including hundreds of framed photographs of county veterans.

He cannot find a grand old flag, 36 feet wide and 18 feet high, that in 1958 was called the largest in county service. It hung like a giant curtain on the hall's auditorium stage. No formal inventory was kept, said building manager Jim Meyers. County officials say they are hiring an expert to sort through the artifacts and will pay for storage space. County staff and project consultants are to meet with veterans today to discuss their plans.

The staff is aware of veterans' concerns, said Jan Takata, assistant division chief in the county's chief administrative office, which is overseeing the project

Takata said he could not "speak to how artifacts were preserved or not preserved in the past."

"We're making every effort to do it appropriately. We've tried to assure them that we're going to treat [the artifacts] very carefully, very respectfully."

Told of the missing flag, he said the county is trying to locate it.

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Morales, 64, has loved the hall ever since he was a boy in the mid-1950s, and his World War II veteran father brought him there to see the marble-floored lobby with its vaulted arches and its walls hung with gilt-framed paintings of famous generals.

When he returned from combat in Vietnam, Morales found a haven in the upstairs offices filled with veteran services, clubs and American Legion posts. He applied for the GI Bill there, and got counseling for his first home loan on the second floor.

Now, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has authorized a study to determine whether it should undertake a three-year, $43-million renovation of the structure.

"The condition of the hall is generally good, and its historic integrity is high," a 2002 study found. But it still has its original boilers and no central air conditioning. Some overhead lights flicker or won't turn on at all. Pipes need to be replaced and asbestos removed.

Renovations would also make the hall more attractive to outside groups, which increasingly have been renting space there as veterans groups dwindle. Among those expressing interest is USC, which is seeking closer ties to downtown, county staff said.

Two weeks ago, the county Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, which runs the building, moved to another county building, along with a handful of veteran groups.

Morales and other veterans leaders are worried that the county may become so enamored of the money to be made from renting space in the hall that veterans will never be allowed to move back in. County officials, however, say that won't happen.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky proposed at an Oct. 10 Board of Supervisors meeting that instead of approving the renovation, which would include a 400-space parking garage, the board spend $165,000 to study whether the county should renovate the building at all. He chided the staff for not looking at alternatives and asked if it would be feasible for veterans to move to another, cheaper site, according to a transcript of the meeting. Yaroslavsky did not return phone calls seeking comment for this report.

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