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The Veterans Home Expansion: Do Our Veterans Deserve More?

Chris d Craiker AIA

In 2022, the Yountville Veterans Home $269million Skilled Nursing Facility, SNF, facilities officially started construction. Motivated by a strong national desire to provide more services to our struggling veterans, the 240 bed, 5 story facility was designed, bid- out and broke-ground but is still in the process of becoming a reality, probably in 2025. This will nearly double the present 300,000 square-foot facility, but will the facilities serve our veterans?

Let’s take a look at the Veteran’s Home history. In 1870 the first facility or “Home” in California was passed to assist aging Mexican American War vets but it wasn’t until 1877 when the Grand Army of the Republic decided to look for a retirement home for Civil War veterans. In 1882, the home was considered a private venture by San Francisco Veteran’s Home Association and 910 acres was purchased for $17,500. A year later, the first administrative building was completed.

Interestingly, 16 years later the association sold the home to the State of California for one $20 gold piece. It’s amazing how Napa land has appreciated in 125 years.

In 1919 Colonel Nelson Holderman was appointed commander of the home as more Civil War vets continued to enter the home and as the facilities deteriorated, Holderman was reappointed commander in 1926, remaining until his death in 1953. He rebuilt the 500 bed hospital and it thrived into the 70s. The California legislation approved $100 million renovation Master Plan reinforcing California’s 10 year commitment to its veterans, especially of Vietnam. At one time, the site housed1200 veterans including 150 women and, little known, 30 couples.

The Veterans Home has always received generous support from the Napa community and the State. Interestingly, it also houses an official alternate “Seat of California Government for the Governor’s Office” should an emergency occur.

Here’s where I have a serious issue. When first announcing the new center as part of a master campus plan in April 2019, Veterans Home Administrator Fred Just said, “We definitely needed a new building, since it would have been more expensive to renovate older facilities than to build a new one. “ Really? More than $269million and the budget is already ballooning?

The complex replaces a few underutilized buildings and a small arbor park however, it sits between multiple historic buildings on a sacred historic site and the design lacks character and grace. The present design was created during the previous Trump Administration when Executive Order #13967 “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” was established to encourage classical and traditional architectural styles. Fortunately, that was rescinded but  the Federal Secretary of the Interiors, SOI, Preservation Standards FR #33708 are still applicable. I searched but could not find where the architects or the State attempted to meet any Fed SOI standards.

To be clear, I don’t oppose any specific architectural style but the SOI standards requires that we differentiate the architecture from the original historic style, not mimic it. This is just a boring committee design.

An example of efforts to tranquilize architectural integrity was the attempt to crush the San Francisco Federal Building proposal in 2007. Definitely an unusual design by my colleague architect Thomas Mayne, the quirky design and energy efficient shape is now a landmark in the City by the Bay. The Lincoln Memorial was originally ostracized as a hideous tribute to one of the Greatest Americans but today is one of our greatest monuments.

It’s too late to reconsider this mammoth SNF project, but it’s not to late to reconsider repurposing the Holderman Building and other existing historic site structures. Over the years, this building has maintained much of its original glory while being subjected to countless chaotic makeovers. And repurposing these gems does not have to cost more.

But here’s where the State should be spending its money: housing our shelterless vets. There so many deteriorating structures all over the 910 acres that could easily be repurposed to help those that have so valiantly severed but have economic and psychological hardships. As of 2021, California has about 11,000 vets living without shelter, almost 5 times the next states number. The number of shelterless vets is on the decline but a slow reduction. The death toll is staggering.

This Memorial Weekend we should do more than thank those that have given their lives for our freedom but think of those that deserve our support and a decent place to live. We have just the place in our back yard.

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB believes everyone, including vets, deserve a shot at a normal life.

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