Written by Rebecca Yerger.
The month of November holds two national holidays focused on remembrances and gratitude – Veterans Day and Thanksgiving. A place located on the local Veterans Home campus embodies the above stated focus of both of these holidays. It is the historic Armistice Chapel.
Decades prior to the construction of the World War I era chapel, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) or Civil War veterans established the local Home in 1884 in the hopes of providing a residence for veterans that encouraged healthful living. These original founders wanted their fellow veterans to be active and given a sense of purpose through honorable work instead of sitting in a rocker on the porch of the San Francisco Home and watching the world go by. In addition to living a life with a sense of purpose, the soul or spirit was attended to as well. From 1884 and onward, residents have always had a place to worship as well as study and practice their doctrine of choice. However, the Armistice Chapel was the first formal church on the Veterans Home campus.
The Chapel was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. While its nomination form appears to have been prepared by different individuals over a two year period, the opening paragraph of the final nomination version most concisely states the historical importance of the Armistice Chapel.
It said, “One of the oldest surviving structures on the Veterans Home grounds which retains most of its original integrity, the Armistice Chapel has contributed greatly to the welfare and to the social and spiritual lives of the thousands of war-time veterans who have come through the Veterans Home from 1919-1959. During that period, the Armistice Chapel was the only structure of its kind in the state of California, as it served the population of the only state facility for veterans.”
Regarding the actual opening date of the Chapel, the two National Register nomination forms disagree. These dates range from Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 to February or March 1919. Regardless of its actual opening day, the Chapel project began in 1917 with State Architect George MacDougall and his staff drafting the plans for the building. The 1979 form described the Chapel’s design as being “the simple English country Gothic style,” while an earlier version of the nomination said, “They built it with a folksy, country-side appearance on the outside and architecturally artful on the inside.”
As for its architectural details, the stucco-finished exterior is understated with a non-sectarian cross of aluminum topping its steeple. The interior has a 25-and-one-half foot high ceiling with three trusses. Those supports are reminiscent of the 14th or 15th century English braced collar roof or wagon roof. These structural supports were created by the Home’s resident carpenter and Chapel project foreman, Ben Tarver. Using no glue or adhesives, Tarver laminated the trusses with bolts made in the Home’s machine shop. Many of the Chapel’s building supplies and elements were fabricated on-site by veterans. Tarver also crafted the sanctuary’s 28 pine pews. He was joined on the construction site by numerous other Veterans Home residents, including E.C. Borman and Walter Tonaschia.
Over time, the Chapel evolved to accommodate the needs of its Veterans Home community. For instance, in 1952, a sizable addition, or wing, was added to the Chapel’s southwestern corner. However, years earlier, a signature Armistice Chapel detail began in May 1925 with the Veterans Home Board of Directors awarding Smith and Company the $600 contract to create two leaded glass windows for the building.
These windows were described at length within the first draft of the nomination form. “An assemblage of rare glass created into a masterpiece cathedral window remains. Total completion of the Chapel was delayed because the two cathedral, stained-glass windows ‘came from a long way off and were a long time in getting here.’ Rarity is added to the beauty of the one window that fully remains today by the fact the glass is a creation of a ‘lost art.’” One of the pair of windows was removed and placed in the newly constructed Memorial Chapel.
During its years of service to the Veterans Home community, 1919 – 1959, the Chapel was the cornerstone of the institution’s military way of life, living and traditions. Addressing this point, the 1979 nomination said, “Although the Armistice Chapel also was used as an extra theater for plays and musical programs, one of the Chapel’s main functions was for the funerals of the Home’s residents and employees. The Home Cemetery had been started many years earlier, but now every veteran who was buried there received a full military funeral beginning with formal last rites officiated within the Chapel followed by a full procession by caisson to the Home Cemetery. As prescribed by military protocol, the Home’s band always played during the procession and burial.”
It continued, “In the period between 1931-1943, 1049 funerals were performed in the Armistice Chapel.” During that period, four high profile services were officiated within the Armistice Chapel for two resident Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, the Home’s last Mexican War veteran and a leader in the Grand Army of the Republic movement. While these four Yountville veterans received grand military last rites, the Armistice Chapel honorably served over 17,000 veterans during its 40 year commission.
However, its days of serving the Home and its residents as a place of worship ended with the dedication of the newly constructed Memorial Chapel on Nov. 8, 1959. It became a social hall and eventually a storage space. Although not completely abandoned, the Armistice Chapel was in need of considerable attention due to dry rot and termite damage. At one point, circa 1973-1974, the Armistice Chapel was slated for demolition but was granted a reprieve due to its history. However, many years would pass before it underwent a full restoration.
Its merits for being restored were far more than its structural and architectural heritage. The Armistice Chapel embodies the military way of life, conduct and tradition at the Veterans Home. For decades, the Armistice Chapel faithfully served the Veterans Home of California residents. Although its days as a place of worship have passed, it continues to be relevant to the present-day Yountville institution.
For those who have, and are, serving this country, thank you!