Archetypal historic downtown building becomes new home for veteran services in Indiana
by Kirsten Clark
INDIANAPOLIS – On March 15, 1919, members of the American Expeditionary Force convene in Paris forming the first American Legion caucus. The event marks the start of an organization that will make Indiana its home and become dedicated to creating and fighting for veteran benefits, resources and programs. The G.I. Bill will be imagined by the Legion, as well as the U.S. Veterans Bureau, which would later become the Veterans Administration.
When the group’s war-weary veterans hold their first convention in November 1919 in Minneapolis, Minn., they meet to adopt a constitution and preamble. They also vote to establish a permanent national headquarters, moving the newly named American Legion from Washington D.C. to Indianapolis. With more than 170 trains in and out of the Circle City on a daily basis, Indianapolis provides the ideal location for the fifty-five department heads to meet and compose the programs that would change the lives of American veterans and their families forever.
“A special Indiana legislative session in 1920 actually designated two city blocks on state property and allocated $2.2 million to construct what is now the Memorial Mall,” said J. Stewart Goodwin, Indiana War Memorial executive director and retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general. “They initially sought to use the property to honor the nearly 135,000 Hoosier veterans and 3,709 killed in action.”
The state moved to build the Legion’s home, 777 North Meridian Street, on this property breaking ground in 1924. Building 777 was the first property conceived on the state land, but in 1927, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front during U.S. involvement in World War I, laid the cornerstone of the Indiana War Memorial, launching the development of additional memorials standing today in that space. The American Legion Mall features a sunken garden, with a cenotaph and four Art Deco columns topped with stylized golden eagles. Built in 1931, the cenotaph is a tribute to the Hoosiers who gave their lives in World War I.
“The city of Indianapolis has more memorials and space dedicated to our servicemembers and veterans than any other city in America, except Washington D.C.,” Goodwin said. “Leaders back then understood the importance of honoring and caring for our nation’s veterans. It behooves us to do the same and consolidate services, programs and benefits for veterans in one location to ensure the highest quality care and recognition for their efforts defending freedom around the world.”
After the building’s construction was complete in 1925, The American Legion, the Red Cross and the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) take up residence in the 40,000 square foot, four-story iconic structure. The American Legion Auxillary also begins serving women veterans from Building 777. The location was so successful that in 1950, the Legion had outgrown the building and had to move to a new, larger location nearby at 700 North Pennsylvania Street, scattering veteran services around the city. Building 777 was occupied by the Indiana Department of the American Legion until 2014 when then IDVA director James Brown and Goodwin conceived the idea to centralize and secure veteran services in one prime location.
“We are now in a position to put this historic site back to work in a way that will provide tremendous benefit to veterans and eligible family members,” said Dennis Wimer, IDVA director. “The vision we have is to make Building 777 the nucleus of veteran activity, resources and strength in Indiana. Veterans will be able to access the help and resources they need in one location, one trip, one stop.”
The distinctive structure needed a transforming renovation, complete with preserving all the detail of its early 1920s charm and architecture. Then Governor Mike Pence appropriated funds from a 1923 state account which allocated monies for state buildings, but remained unused. This account assisted the state in maintaining, building and recovering state properties and so swift labor to revive the site began. While the historic look of the building has been preserved, new features include updated Americans with Disabilities compliant ramps and restrooms on each floor. Nearing completion, the IDVA will migrate to the building’s third floor and be joined by the State Approving Agency (SAA) in Spring 2020.
Additional agencies that will follow IDVA and the SAA to Building 777 are the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation (HVAF), INvets, representatives from The American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), AmVets, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Furthermore, the location will have the ability to assist veterans with their medical and healthcare enrollment and benefits, and with acquiring benefits and services offered from the Federal regional office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“No other state that we know of will offer all of these services under one roof,” said Goodwin. “Since the Vietnam War, every veteran is a volunteer – they raised their hand and took an oath to protect and defend others – it is our responsibility to take care of those who took care of us.”
Building 777 will also have increased space for training, for staff meetings and conferences and improved technology access. Veterans will be able to use the internet and computers to access any digital and electronic records and files with assistance from staff.
“This will be a veteran’s last stop; this is the finest collection of veteran helpers in one location,” Goodwin said. “If you have a problem or an issue and you can’t get it solved elsewhere, you need to bring it here and get it resolved. We will work it until it is truly fixed.”
Some information for this article obtained from https://www.legion.org/history.