Looking for a saving grace

Times Staff Writer

The oldest building on Wilshire Boulevard is a fixerupper duplex of a most unusual sort.

Roundels, lunettes and other late-Victorian details adorn the redwood clapboard siding of Building 20 on the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus. Atop the roof’s towers and gables sit four Latin and Celtic crosses, hinting at the activities that once filled the interior with songs and sermons.

Until the 1971 Sylmar earthquake forced its closing, the building, completed in 1900, provided dual sanctuaries separated by a double brick wall that also served to deaden the organ rumblings that emanated from either side. At the north end, old soldiers worshiped in a Catholic chapel; at the south end, they prayed as Protestants.


The arrangement was highly unusual, if not unique. And the Catholic-Protestant chapels quickly emerged as a point of pride for veterans and other residents, according to local news reports of the time.

Since being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, however, the building has deteriorated markedly. Intruders have set fires, burning holes in the floors and scorching wood wainscoting and pews. Empty beef jerky bags, discarded underwear and clumps of plaster litter the worn burgundy carpeting. Until a recent cleanup, the top steps leading to the Protestant chapel’s balcony were piled with feces.

Outside, tall trucks rolling by on Eisenhower Avenue have knocked off wood trim on the curved wall of the Catholic chapel’s apse. Across the arched southern entry porch, chain-link fencing installed as a security measure heightens the aura of abandonment.

Frayed and forlorn, the Wadsworth Chapel -- as it is known, in honor of a Civil War officer -- needs a restoration that the VA estimates would cost $11.5 million. With the department facing $250 million in deferred maintenance expenses at the expansive campus and unable to foot the bill, preservation advocates have for years scouted for private funding, to little avail.

Activists recently have tried to reinvigorate efforts to press foundations and wealthy individuals for the needed money. Their aim is to save what they consider a rare Victorian gem in a city that has often been accused of laying waste to its history in the name of progress.

“Simply as the oldest building on one of the city’s most prominent and famous boulevards, it’s of critical importance,” said Jay Platt, a preservation advocate with the Los Angeles Conservancy.

In 1887, with thousands of Indian Wars and Civil War veterans in need of treatment and housing, Congress mandated a Pacific branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Soon after, construction began on a rural 640-acre tract in Los Angeles, near the small settlement of Sawtelle.

A dozen Victorian dormitories rose on the gently sloping grounds to house vets in what became known as the National Soldiers Home. The old soldiers attended services in a shabby little building that doubled as a meeting house.

After vets clamored for a proper place to worship and hold funeral services, the government authorized $14,000 for a chapel at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard, at the time an incidental two-lane street, and Bonsall Avenue, the northern continuation of Sawtelle Boulevard.

J. Lee Burton, the project’s otherwise obscure Los Angeles architect, designed a structure with complex parts that nonetheless add up to a serene whole. Reflecting the distinct religious spaces within, the eclectic exterior ornamentation drew from two styles: Romanesque and Carpenter Gothic (so called for the extensive decorative woodwork, asymmetrical lines and towers). The redwood siding was stained in dark, earthy hues, while the wooden trim of doors, windows and parapets was painted white. (By 1941, the VA had painted the entire exterior off-white, as it appears now.)

The 7,500-square-foot building featured an unusually large variety of windows -- 21 types in all -- including lancets with sharply pointed arches and wide groupings of casements, some topped by a rounded arch. Burton positioned them in whimsical and picturesque ways.

Overflow crowds attended the dedications of the two flower-bedecked chapels, held on separate days in March 1900, according to a 2001 report prepared by Historic Resources Group.

In 1955, a fire damaged the Protestant chapel, and the VA installed a wall to hide charred timbers. The chapel’s balcony was closed and seating was confined to the first-floor pews, which remain more or less intact. Much of the structural damage went unrepaired.

The 6.6-magnitude 1971 earthquake cracked interior plaster and loosened the brick foundation. It was also blamed for causing the northeast bell tower to pull away from a gable. (The bronze bell still rings.) Moisture and mold have caused interior plaster to crumble and paint to peel.

Despite its condition, the mothballed building is a good candidate for an architectural resurrection, preservation advocates say.

“For its age, it’s in extraordinarily good shape,” said Taylor Louden, a historical architect serving as a consultant on the project for the firm of Leo A. Daly. That’s especially true, he added, given that the building is not directly fastened to its unreinforced masonry foundation, yet managed to withstand the 1994 Northridge earthquake, among others.

On a recent tour, Louden pointed out ecclesiastical “ephemera” that he and others have discovered indoors. A squat white sandwich board declares in black lettering: “Quiet Please. Divine Services.” A wooden baby Jesus in a manger, a vestige of some long-ago creche, rests on a pew.

Much of the original plaster -- some pink, some grayish-blue -- has survived. One of the most compelling remnants, Louden said, is a section of elaborate stenciling, probably applied by veterans, on a stucco wall behind the pipe organ console in the Catholic chapel.

Restoration would be an intricate, and costly, undertaking. For starters, the masonry foundation would have to be replaced with concrete. Most windows would have to be removed and repaired. Ideally, old-growth redwood would be used to match any missing or damaged siding. Seismic upgrading and the required removal of lead-based paint and asbestos would add significant expense, as would the finish carpentry work.

“This is custom stuff,” Louden said. “You are effectively building again a building that is already standing.”

Although the VA over the years has paid to paint the structure, maintain the roof and prepare reports and construction drawings -- which are nearly complete -- it could not foot the full restoration bill, said Charles Dorman, director of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

“The general perception is that the federal government has plenty of money, but not for something like this,” Dorman said.

Dorman hopes that a well-heeled individual or group will step up to make the project happen. “I don’t have a problem with making it the Tom Hanks Chapel,” Dorman said wryly. He anticipates that the structure, once restored, could be used for religious services and leased for community gatherings, performances and weddings.

Meanwhile, Susan C. Young, executive director of the Veterans Park Conservancy, a nonprofit group, plans to apply for grants from the Getty Foundation, the National Park Service and other organizations. Years ago, the foundation provided a $75,000 Preserve L.A. grant to fund a historic report on the structure.

For some veterans, the prospect of spending so lavishly on a building, even one as charming as the Wadsworth Chapel, is distasteful at a time when thousands of vets, including Iraq war returnees, need care.

“That is such a beautiful piece of workmanship and, yes, it cries out to be repaired,” said Jessica Landry, an Air Force veteran who lives in Brentwood. “At the same time, the veterans cry out to be repaired. It’s a moral issue.”

But preservation advocates hope that funds will somehow materialize.

“It’s an intricate little jewel box, and it’s fallen on hard times,” said Christopher J. Alexander, associate curator of architecture for the Getty Research Institute. “You’d hate to think this beautiful structure will literally just crumble.”