The American Legion Hall:
A Violent Past – A Bright Future
The American Legion Memorial Hall today sits quietly and peacefully at the corner of La Crescenta and Manhattan avenues. It is home to Verdugo Hills Post 288, which this last April celebrated its 90th year in existence, making it probably one of the oldest posts in the nation. The building itself is almost as old, turning 89 this fall. The Legion Hall has been a fixture in the community and a social center – a home for Boy Scouts, various local clubs, dance and exercise classes, and community meetings. Wedding receptions and teen dances are held here. Several local churches started here before they had facilities of their own. It’s a place of community, companionship and opportunity.
The American Legion was formed in 1919 for veterans of the “Great War.” Their focus has been to advocate for veterans’ benefits and to promote American ideals. They have been probably the most influential non-profit in the history of America.
Our own American Legion post was formed in 1924, and the hall was built soon after in 1925. The Spanish Colonial style building was then located at the northeast corner of Rosemont and Fairway avenues. The hall was used for American Legion meetings, Red Cross clinics, and Boy Scout meetings. The hall was central to many community celebrations. The historical society has a series of photos taken in the late ’20s of a grand patriotic parade in honor of Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the Great War. The men are dressed in their old uniforms at the Legion Hall for the march down Montrose Avenue, and the celebrations continued with an Army/Navy baseball game at Montrose Elementary School.
The seminal moment for the hall came on New Year’s Eve 1934, a moment that would cast a pall of infamy over the hall. Heavy rain for a week in late December of 1933 had saturated the fire denuded San Gabriel Mountains. By New Year’s Eve the Legion Hall had been turned into a refugee center for the many cold and soaked residents who had been flooded out of their homes. Two Red Cross volunteers handled the growing crowd, handing out coffee and blankets. At midnight a crushing downpour set the muddy hillsides in motion, and a 20-foot high wave of rocks and mud roared down Pickens Canyon. The fast moving wave hit the Legion Hall a glancing blow on the back corner, enough to open a gaping hole for the mud and rocks to pour into the hall. The refugees were all swept out, and 12 of them perished, including the two Red Cross volunteers. The hall itself, despite the violent loss of life that had occurred, was relatively intact.
It was the depth of the Depression and nothing was to be wasted. The Bonetto family had donated a plot of land at a less flood-prone spot on the corner of La Crescenta and Manhattan. The only slightly damaged building was winched onto a huge trailer and pulled down Montrose Avenue to its new home, and there it sits today. It was renamed Memorial Hall in honor of both the war dead and the two Red Cross volunteers who had died helping their community.
Recently, two powerhouse Legionnaires, Mike Baldwin and Ken Jury, with the help of their Legion brothers, raised tens of thousands of dollars to rebuild the war memorial at Two Strike Park. When that was complete, they set their sights on remodeling the aging Legion Hall. They secured a $20,000 grant from Home Depot with the help of Assemblyman Mike Gatto, and rallied volunteer skilled labor from their ranks.
The job is nearly complete, and the hall just shines now with a new kitchen, bathrooms and entry hall. New photos and flags line the walls. A small stage is being built at the head of the hall. When their job is done in late August, they plan a big open house to re-introduce the hall to a new generation of La Crescentans.
The Legion Hall, nearly destroyed once, will live on to serve – perhaps another 90 years.