Stuck in traffic, generations of commuters doubtless have let their irritated gazes wander off to the south side of the Santa Monica Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, across from Staples Center, and idly wondered how the curiously impressive and quaint-looking old building there came to bear the equally quaint name Patriotic Hall.
The building, an island of Los Angeles County property in the midst of the city of Los Angeles, was completed 75 years ago next Saturday, built as a gesture of civic appreciation to the doughboys of World War I.
Over succeeding decades, it became a monument to all veterans, a speaking site for U.S. presidents and military generals, a party hangout for police officers, a temporary courthouse, a hotel and nightspot for servicemen, and an armory and fortress where aging World War I veterans organized themselves as the Home Guard militia to defend Los Angeles against any Japanese invasion during World War II.
The spot on Figueroa Street near 18th Street was not chosen at random. Over the last 115 years, three Patriotic Halls have risen on the same site. In 1886, the Grand Army of the Republic--a Civil War veterans organization and one of the city's most powerful groups--built a three-story gabled Victorian house on part of a 30-acre bean field. The GAR kept strict records of the honorable Civil War veterans who became members. The group also allegedly kept a black book of those whose membership applications were rejected for dishonorable behavior such as desertion, womanizing, drunkenness and unpaid debts.
As the veteran population swelled from the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, the Victorian house came down, and in 1907 a larger, two-story building went up. More than a decade later, as veterans returned from World War I, this structure also became too small for the first American Legion post in Southern California, Post 8.
Former California Gov. Henry T. Gage, who owned several lots surrounding the hall, stepped in and deeded his land to Los Angeles County for the sole purpose of building a bigger and better facility for veterans. Buron Fitts, the state commander of the American Legion and soon to be Los Angeles County's district attorney, pulled strings to make sure the hall went up. On Sept. 1, 1926, the 10-story, neo-Italian Renaissance steel structure, built with county funds at a cost of $800,000, opened to the public, defining the area's skyline.
The American Legion Post 8 lobbied for social services for war veterans, collected funds for charitable activities and published a weekly bulletin that promoted patriotic causes. Eventually it hammered away at those whom it considered radical and unpatriotic, like Hollywood liberals and socialists of the McCarthy era.
The second-floor Lincoln Room, named by veterans of the GAR, soon became the gathering spot for off-duty cops who would in 1934 become the founding members of L.A. Police Post 381, composed of policemen who were also veterans.
While official meetings and social events were held on the second floor, the basement--most popular among the police--was always crowded with after-hours nippers who served confiscated bootlegged liquor and watched stag films supposedly being held as evidence in vice cases.
During World War II, the parties came to an abrupt end when the county turned Patriotic Hall's basement into a 400-bed haven for GIs who couldn't find or afford hotel rooms. Although the hall didn't offer room service, it did boast Hollywood stars to entertain the troops. In the main auditorium, the famous trio of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hoofed it and joked while selling war bonds. The stage, with a huge flag backdrop, would later be used in the opening scene of the movie "Patton," starring George C. Scott.
On Feb. 25, 1942, the Home Guard militia--made up of about 30 American Legion members--turned Patriotic Hall into the site of rattling gunfire and thundering artillery after their commander, Ralph Ensign, a 47-year-old insurance salesman, opened fire on the horizon with a German World War I anti-aircraft gun he had had mounted on the roof.
That night, during what was widely believed to be a Japanese air raid, guard members unlimbered their one gun and shot at an airplane that then crashed near 185th Street and Vermont Avenue, injuring the pilot, who was on his way to visit his girlfriend. In the sudden barrage of bullets from many guns across Los Angeles that night, someone hit the small plane--probably the Home Guard, but no one bothered to verify it.
Thus occurred one of the most celebrated incidents in the storied "Battle of Los Angeles."
Days later, Mayor Fletcher Bowron--known to his Home Guardsmen buddies as "Old Chubby Cheeks"--stood by as a fellow veteran and future Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Jack Moroney, decorated the gunners for their heroism, then immediately ordered the unit disarmed and disbanded: Patriotism and comradeship aside, it was difficult to overlook the fact that the plane the guardsmen had shot at that night was an American civilian aircraft.
No one, however, was inclined to make too much of an honest mistake, especially since most of the city's elected officials were members of the powerful American Legion.
When returning World War II veterans began displacing World War I vets in leadership positions, friction emerged between the two groups. The older vets got even by stashing most of their wartime memorabilia behind a secret panel that was not found until decades later.
A shortage of courtroom space in 1947 forced the police post out of its second-floor stronghold to make room for temporary courtrooms, attorneys and judges. Courtroom dramas were becoming plentiful, and the Lincoln Room was practically a second home to Superior Court judges such as Joseph Vickers and Clarence L. Kincaid. For more than two years, hundreds of prisoners paced the hallways or sweated at defense tables.
Three years later, after criminal courts moved out, another sort of court moved into the Lincoln Room. It became veterans' center ring for the Red Scare. Movie studio moguls, many of whom were veterans of the Army Signal Corps motion picture division, met quietly and assembled their own list of suspected Communists and their sympathizers in Hollywood.
Although far less influential today than in the past, the American Legion has about 32,000 members in fewer than 132 posts in Los Angeles County.
Many of the cavernous wood-paneled meeting rooms are named for major figures who spoke in Patriotic Hall over its history: Gens. Jimmy Doolittle, Omar Bradley and Douglas MacArthur; Adm. Chester Nimitz; and President Woodrow Wilson. Other presidents who visited included William Howard Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. A plaque in the lobby pays tribute to Audie Murphy, the freckle-faced Texas kid who became America's most decorated soldier after he single-handedly killed 240 German soldiers during World War II, and later became an actor.
Patriotic Hall's 10-story stairwell, which evokes mystery and a slight vertigo, was used in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 double-identity thriller "Vertigo." The hall has figured in more than 300 films, including "Stand and Deliver," "Iron Eagle," "Heat," "Native Son" and more recently "The Wedding Planner." In the Nimitz Room, where a German mortar cannon once squatted, movie-makers filmed the final scene in the movie "Flashdance."
From the Purple Heart Inn in the basement to the empty gun emplacements on the roof, the hall contains an impressive array of battle-frayed mementos that chronicle not only the nation's wars, but also the Los Angeles men and women who fought them. The autographed photos of war heroes that once lined the walls of the Nimitz Room are now boxed and stored. In the MacArthur Library sits a valuable collection of military books and historical documents that are available for scholarly research.
On Sept. 15 the public is invited to view these treasures all day, when Patriotic Hall brings them, and its heroes, out to celebrate its 75th anniversary.