Legion Volunteers Almost-Free Land : Beverly Hills Vets Trying Vainly to Enlist Developers in a Deal for Faded Headquarters

Times Staff Writer

American Legion Post No. 253 wants to give away a nice little chunk of Beverly Hills real estate.

There's a catch, of course. The Legion wants to hold on to a meeting room in any new building that would go up on the parcel, currently the site of its Robertson Boulevard meeting hall.

"We don't want to sell it and meet in a restaurant for the rest of our lives," said Gene Wallace, commander of the 309-member post, which has been meeting in its mustard-yellow hall since 1937.

Marlene Dietrich sang there for servicemen during World War II and impromptu appearances by Red Skelton drew crowds in the postwar years.

New Roof Needed

But time has been hard on the bunker-like building, despite its nine-inch-thick walls of reinforced concrete. And the prospect of finding $50,000 to pay for a new roof was unnerving for the post's board of directors.

"That's something of a catastrophic proposition that we can't even begin to pay for," said Wallace, a would-be theatrical producer who got involved in the Beverly Hills Legion when he built an equity-waiver theater in the space once occupied by its back barroom.

The Legion doesn't serve drinks anymore. And Wallace, a Vietnam-era veteran, has been neglecting the theater in his preoccupation with the fate of the Legion post and its precious legacy, a 6,500-square-foot plot of land purchased from the city of Beverly Hills for $10 in 1936.

"All we've got right now is this building. Let's have them bulldoze this place, give us our hall back on the ground floor, and whoever comes in can have the very expensive and lucrative office space that people in that area are killing for," he said. "And if everything worked out the right way, everybody benefits."

No Takers

But there have been no takers, despite the prospect of saving about $1 million in real estate costs.

"I've been presenting it to different developers since the end of last year but . . . that's not the greatest investment, because the Legion wants to keep the ground floor," said Cesar L. Marquez, an agent for Brown & Brown, an equity development firm that represents the Legion post.

Tracey Caroll, a partner in the Beverly Hills Medical Plaza, which is about to open next door, said her associates made an offer for the property three years ago, but the Legion was not interested in selling.

"At this point it's a little late for us. I don't know what we'd do with it at this point," she said.

Marquez said he is trying to arrange for a joint venture that would demolish the meeting hall, erect a new building and lease meeting space back to the old soldiers in perpetuity.

But a developer would have to pay off an existing $40,000 loan and help the Legion get by financially during construction without its income from rentals of the run-down hall for shows, dance classes and traffic school.

More daunting still are zoning regulations and parking requirements that would complicate a construction job and leave a limited amount of rental space.

City rules limit new buildings on Robertson Boulevard to three stories or 45 feet in height. There would also have to be two floors of underground parking.

But the Legion is willing to negotiate, and a farsighted investor can probably look forward to the eventual demise of the veterans group, whose members must have served during wartime. Unless the United States fights another war, the Legionnaires most likely will be gone by the year 2050.

For now, however, there are enough wartime veterans around that the Legion hopes to boost its membership nationwide from about 2.5 million to 3 million, according to Al Krank, department service officer for the state of California.

Mostly World War II Vets

Although it still boasts of carrying a 94-year-old World War I vet on its membership rolls, the Beverly Hills post is largely made up of World War II GIs and a smaller group who wore the uniform during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, said Ruth Lange, a previous commander who now serves as adjutant. A World War II Coast Guard veteran, she also is the commander of the Legion's 24th District, which includes several posts across the Westside.

"During the war years, the stars used to come there and entertain. We had dinners every Sunday for the servicemen, and it was an extremely active post," she said.

"Then there was an indifferent administration, and they just let the place run down, but when I put the Vietnam boys in, they really took over. They started cleaning up and fixing it up."

Post Improvements

Along with Wallace's equity waiver theater, which he paid for with his own money, the post has put in new wiring, refurbished an upstairs room into a dance studio and installed a new neon sign on its facade.

Rentals have boosted income from the building from $7,000 a year in the early 1980s to about $50,000 a year now, but increasing costs for insurance and other obligations left the post with no funds for a new roof, Wallace said.

The American Legion was organized by World War I servicemen in France 70 years ago. The organization lobbies for veterans' rights and sponsors youth activities, such as American Legion baseball, the Boys State civics program, and a nationwide oratorical contest.

Members also visit patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and sponsor Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

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