Battle at War Memorial Veterans building goes room to roomBy Esther Misa Chavez
SAN FRANCISCO – The long drawn out war at the War Memorial Veterans Building on 401 Van Ness that pits the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other veterans organizations against the War Memorial Board of Trustees and the Arts Commission has come down to a room to room battle with the Veterans fighting for the preservation of their existing offices and historical rooms.
The building’s 11-member board of trustees and the powerful Performing Arts Commission, both composed of the city’s arts, society, political, philanthropic and business power brokers, want to add two small theaters (seating 100 and 350 people each), a museum, a restaurant, two rehearsal rooms and a ticket agency for the opera, ballet and symphony. If their plans are carried out, the proposed retrofit and repair of the inner structure of the building will move the Veterans offices from the ground floor to second or higher floors.
At the third hearing before the Historic Preservation Commission regarding the War Memorial Veterans Building’ concerns, one of the witnesses for the War Memorial Board of Trustees, Major General Michael Myatt USMC (Ret.) stated that the Veterans wanted to occupy the entire building. Also, that there will be less and less veterans in the future. Last year alone there “were 40% less veterans and they will be 25% less next year.” He said.
The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other veterans groups who attended the hearing could not believe what the general had just said. Of course, the general did not say which Veterans of which war were those. The WWII Veterans are indeed a vanishing breed. These gallant men and women are dying by the hundreds each year. But how about the Veterans of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Laos, Cambodia, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan and a long list of foreign wars. Should their legacy be forgotten?
The general seem to have forgotten that one of the reasons the United States is a world power is because of its military supremacy and might, that the country is still at war, and will be the world’s “police” for decades to come.
During the closing discussion among the members of the Historic Preservation Commission hearing Richard Johns commented that during these economic times, the War Memorial Veterans Building (WMVB) is better off being opened to more public use to generate funds for building maintenance. He also mentioned that if the Veterans have their wish, the $21-million gift the San Francisco Opera is willing to add to the renovation fund would be lost, even as public records show that the $21-million “gift” is going towards the renovation of the 4th floor for the Opera’s use. It would seem, then, that what is done with the ground floor is not a condition of this gift.
(This year a bond measure was passed to raise $190-Million in the retrofitting and repair of the WMVB which includes $1-million for the relocation costs for existing Veterans Building tenants. The amount does not include the $21-Million gift of San Francisco Opera.)
War memorial veterans building
The American Legion is an original beneficiary of the 1921 Trust that financed and constructed the War Memorial Complex. At present, the Veterans occupy only 17% of the four-story building down from 80% in 1932. They mainly occupy rooms on the ground floor of this historic building. The top floors are occupied by the San Francisco Ballet and by the Opera House. Other rooms on the lower floors are used by other organizations. If the War Memorial Board of Trustees and the Performing Arts Commission’s plans carry through, the veterans are looking at an almost one half of their allotted space from 17% of floor space down to 10% and, furthermore, they are relegated to the second floor or beyond, rendering them less accessible and diminishing their importance.
The historical rooms currently occupied by the American Legion and several other Veterans organizations of different campaigns, including the Bataan Post 600 and the LGBT Veterans are an integral part of the historical legacy of the building. The Board of Trustees and the PAC on the other hand do not seem to look at it that way. They want the ground floor to be used more by the “public.” Never mind the Veterans who have given their blood, sweat and tears for the public’s enjoyment of their freedom and democratic life.
One would think that should have more value than the blood, sweat and tears of artists.
‘Ashamed of being a San Franciscan’
At the summation of the hearing, the commissioners voted 4 to 2 for the plans of the War Memorial Board of Trustees, the Performing Arts Commission to go through, this to the consternation of the Veterans in attendance. Only Commissioners Alan Martinez and Andrew Wolfram voted against the plan. Martinez, a historical architect, said at the hearing that he will be ashamed to be called a resident of San Francisco if the Veterans are evicted from their assigned and historical rooms on the ground floor and moved to the second floor or elsewhere in the building.
However, his motion to discuss within 90 days the merits of the landmark status of the “inner” structure of the WMVB was seconded and won with a 5 to 1 vote. Only the president of the Commission, Charles E. Chase said “Nay”.
Background of the War Memorial Building Complex
California Historical Preservation Landmark No. 84
Civic Center, 400 Block of Van Ness
Birthplace of the United Nations
On June 25, 1945, fifty nations participated in drafting the United Nations Charter and signed by all fifty nations on June 26 at the War Memorial Veterans Building. The California Office of Historic Preservation cited the signing of the Charter as one of the most significant historical landmark sites in the world for 20th century events.
In 1951, the WMVB again distinguished itself as the place where the Treaty of San Francisco was drawn, the treaty that formally ended the Pacific War with the Empire of Japan.
The history of the War Memorial Veterans Building transcends local significance. It is an international landmark worthy of honor, recognition, and preservation. Can a historical landmark represent only the outer structure and not the inner structure? The San Francisco City Hall was retrofitted and reconstructed true to its historical stature. The War Memorial Trustees must first and foremost honor the war veterans that the building, after all, is named after, and look at their needs before giving way to the arts. Its offices and historical rooms must stay on the ground floor. Not only is it their heard-earned right, the citizens of San Francisco, of California, and the United States owe it to them.
Significance of Room 126 at the WMVB
One of the oldest and prominent rooms at the building is Room 126 also named the Brigadier General Carlos P. Romulo Room. BGen. Romulo was the Philippines’ signatory to the UN Charter. He also served as the President of the Fourth Session of the United Nations General Assembly from 1949-1950, and Chairman of the UN Security Council. He served with General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific War Theater.
Room 126 of the Veterans Building has been assigned for use by Filipino-American veterans since April 23, 1945 when, prior to the signing of the U.S. Charter, General Romulo met with the American defenders of Bataan and survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March, where American and Filipino soldiers died or struggled and survived through sheer determination to show their captors the power of their human spirit. Many of our veterans paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. On June 20, 1945 Bataan Post 600 was granted a Permanent Charter by the National Head Quarter of the American Legion and its historic significance occurred six days later on June 26, 1945 when the Charter of the United Nations was signed in the Veterans Auditorium (Herbst Theater) and General Romulo visited Room 126.
The Post’s continuous presence in Room 126 the Veterans Building is due primarily to members who come from Filipino American families with long and distinguished service in the US Military. Records kept in the Managing Director’s office confirm that the Bataan Post 600 is the most active of all American Legion Posts in the Veterans Building.
According to Rudy Asercion, Commander of American Legion Bataan Post 600, the Brig. Gen. Carlos P. Romulo WWII Memorial (Room 126) is the only one of its kind in the state of California and is California’s only repository of memorabilia honoring the Filipinos that risked their lives for the United States in World War II. It contains personal properties of deceased WWII Veterans, military records and testimonies in the form of oral and video histories of Filipinos in San Francisco and the Bay Area who were involved in WW II. Their contribution to the war effort became the basis of AB 199, the Filipinos in WWII Social Studies Curriculum Act. The bill signed by Governor Brown last year mandates that social science instruction in grades 7-12 include the significant role of Filipinos in WWII.
Consequently, Room 126 receives more visitors, educators, students and academic researchers annually than the Trophy Room in the Lobby and all the other 16 American Legion Posts combined.
Bataan Post 600 is the sole surviving Filipino American Veterans Post of the American Legion in California. Over the years, the Post has hosted numerous commemorative ceremonies in the War Memorial Veterans Building. Annually, the Post hosts Prisoner of War commemorations in the Green Room, Room 126 and the Lobby. It honored Lance Cpl. O.J. Santa Maria, the first US Marine wounded in Iraq. One noteworthy event that garnered the commendation of both heads of States of the United States and the Philippines was the 60th anniversary commemoration in 2004 of the Allied Forces landing in Leyte under the command of General Douglas Mac Arthur and Brigadier General Carlos P. Romulo of the Philippine Commonwealth Army.
The Filipino American veterans elected to dedicate Room 126 in honor of Brig. Gen. Carlos P. Romulo who helped General Douglas Mac Arthur in the war effort in the Pacific. In 2010, Supervisor Carmen Chu honored the Filipino WWII veterans by officially proclaiming and cutting the ceremonial ribbon to the Carlos P. Romulo WWII Memorial.
Asercion believes that the proposed internal construction of the ground floor will destroy the significance of Room 126 and the historic meeting of Brig. Gen. Carlos P. Romulo with Bataan Death March survivors in the War Memorial Veterans Building will disappear in the pages of history.
He, along with surviving WWII Veterans, their families and the Filipino American community, urge the Board of Trustees to come to the table to renegotiate, in good faith, the preservation of the Brig. Gen. Carlos P. Romulo WWII Memorial along with other historical rooms of the American Legion Posts on the ground floor.
Until the preservation of this historic spaces for Veterans and the future generations has been resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both the American Legion War Memorial Commission and the Board of Trustees, they request that the retrofit of the ground floor not go forward in the approval process administratively or legislatively.
It has been 80 years since the War Memorial Building and the War Memorial Opera House were built and even from the very beginning, the arts group has had its eye on occupying both buildings and using them mostly for its purposes. They won control over the War Memorial Opera house but, not satisfied, they now insist they need the War Memorial Veterans Building to be added to the “culture” circuit and celebrate the arts. This time, they might just win.
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