Presenting the Past

Presenting the Past (part 1): the Historical Veterans Memorial Hall

by Beverly Lane

The Veterans Memorial Hall – or Legion Hall as oldtimers call it – is one of the Valley’s most important historical buildings. It has served veterans and the entire community for over 80 years.

After the trauma of what was called The Great War, veterans wanted to join together to honor their lost compatriots and support one another. The American Legion Charter for Danville Post 246 was dated January 1921 and included these charter members: Noel D. Norris, P.E. Wing, Robert L. Becker, William E. Tarplay, Ferdinand Noia, Alfred M. Podva, James P. Root, Tony Noia, Perry A. Wing, Paul Noia, Joseph Bispo, Jerome Thorpe, A.B. Cabral, George Smith and D. Van Gordon.

At the county level, the Board of Supervisors committed to build a Veterans Hall in each town with an American Legion Post. An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle in the early 1920s recognized the efforts of the County Board:
Contra Costa county is notable among the counties of the State in its memorials to World War veterans. When the doughboys started over seas they were promised that when they returned they could have ‘anything they wanted.’ Making good this promise, the board of supervisors has built
a veterans’ memorial hall in each town in the county where there is an American Legion Post. These are now being finished and dedicated. Walnut Creek dedicated its hall last Sunday. Danville hopes to open its hall on Washington’s Birthday.

The buildings were paid for by a small direct tax, all of which has already been raised. On the threshold of each one is a brass plate reading ‘Dedicated to those who served.’ While the halls are nominally in the custody of the American Legion, they are open to all veterans’ organizations. The Legion men have gone further and offered their use free to any and all patriotic, civic and welfare associations, such as the Boy Scouts, Red Cross, farm bureau, chamber of commerce and improvement clubs. They will be, in a manner, community halls.

“The building in Danville is to house the public library and the chamber of commerce. In Martinez there is to be a public swimming pool. The structures are designed to serve as substantial memorials to the men of Contra Costa County who served their country at the time of its need, and mark the towns containing them as having a full quota of patriotic citizens.”

The contract was given to Dinnie Construction in late 1924 for $18,000 and it was designed by architect James T. Narbett in a classical style. The building was frame and stucco construction, two stories, 60 by 21 feet, with a ground floor auditorium 40 by 70 feet, exclusive of stage.
E.A. Root of Danville was named as inspector of the Memorial Hall construction work at a salary of $8 per day.After temporary officers were elected at a January meeting in 1925, resolutions were adopted restricting the use of the new Veterans Memorial to patriotic, civic and improvement associations.

According to the Courier & Journal of Jan. 23, 1925: “The hall will not be rented to fraternal orders or leased to any individual or society for entertainments at which an admission fee is charged. It is the purpose of the post not to have the memorial hall compete in any manner with Danville Community hall. The only ‘pay’ affairs to be given in the memorial hall will be sponsored by the legion. Such organizations as the farm bureau, welfare club, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, chamber of commerce, fire department and patriotic societies will be allowed to hold their meetings
there free of charge.”

The Danville Community Hall referred to the Social and Fraternal Hall on Front Street, which had been built in 1913 by the IOOF and Danville Grange No. 85 (today’s Village Theatre). In the coming years, these two locations hosted gatherings of any size in the village, including meetings,
dances, plays and graduation recitals.

When the Veterans Hall was dedicated on April 2, 1925, the Danville Improvement Club donated a piano, and the China Club provided a large American flag. Both the library and the local chamber of commerce soon had offices in the new building. From the start the veterans created a place that welcomed the whole community.

Sources: S. F. Chronicle, Courier and Journal (Jan. 23, 1925), News Notes of California Libraries (April 1926), Valley Pioneer (June 7, 1961), Museum of the San Ramon Valley archives. Beverly Lane, a longtime Danville resident, is curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and co-author of “San Ramon Valley: Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon.”

Presenting the Past (part 2): The Historical Veterans Memorial Hall

by Beverly Lane

In 1926, shortly after the Legion Hall opened, the Danville library moved from its location over the Post Office on Front Street to a room in the hall. The new library was in the hall’s northwest corner, where the kitchen is today. Edith Clark was the first librarian. Barbara Parks and Gary Soto
remember going into the library for books and looking at a stereopticon with various slides.

The following entry appeared in News Notes of California Libraries in 1926:
“A large entertainment given in Danville toward the end of February netted sufficient funds to pay entirely for the filling up of the new Library room in the Legion Building. The room is a joy to the whole community. On March 15 and 16, a force from the county library moved the books … The library was opened the next day without ceremony. The part of the building devoted to the library is delightful, sunny and large
enough for a few years….”

For the first decades of these “few years,” the space was adequate for the population of around 400. Danville readers enjoyed a quiet atmosphere where they might browse through the book shelves and relax in the wicker chairs. Myrtle Osborn succeeded Mrs. Clark as librarian in 1945, and Grace Warren was next. The Veterans Hall library closed in 1961 when the new San Ramon Valley Library opened. The hall has been used for veterans’ meetings, the Chamber of Commerce office, the Justice of the Peace court, the hilarious Legion Follies from 1946 for about 10 years, plays, parties, recreational classes and events of all sorts. It was the County Supervisor’s office in the late 1970s.

Saturday night dances were a primary use for the hall. Today many people still remember the monthly “dollar” dances, with Mabel Christianson and her band teaching people how to dance the two-step, mazurka and polka. Romances blossomed at these dances, and older couples enjoyed the dancing as well.

In 1941, a Walnut Kernel reporter wrote:
“What is probably the oldest continuous series of dances in Contra Costa county is conducted monthly in the Danville veterans’ hall by the Mt. Diablo post of the American Legion. On the first Saturday night of each month, the post and women’s auxiliary have an oldtime dance where middle-aged folk may enjoy the … dances they learned when children.”

In 1978, after getting Community Development Block Grants, R-7 funds and other donations, the hall was renovated as the Senior Citizen’s Center. Dave Stegman and the Community Center spearheaded this effort. A complete kitchen, handicapped restrooms, a disabled ramp and upgraded electric and plumbing systems were installed. The grand opening brought 500 people to the celebration, including Congressman GeorgeMiller.

After the Town of Danville was incorporated and took over recreation programming, the hall continued as an important community facility. The improvements of 1978 were just a start. In 1992, estimates for complete renovations ranged as high as $1.5 million. Since the county owned the building in trust for the veterans, it was and is hard for the Town to justify spending that much on a property it does not own.Danville is a town which clearly values its Old Town and historic buildings. The Town has worked to save the Southern Pacific Depot (1891), the Village Theatre (built in 1913 as the Social and Fraternal Hall), the Cohen/Vecki house (1866) and the Town Meeting Hall (1933). The Town also recognizes the value of historic tourism in which visitors look for authentic buildings with special community stories.

Pleasanton, which has a vital historic downtown, is spending money to renovate its Veterans Hall. Recently Walnut Creek and Lafayette tore down their historic veterans halls to construct a large community building, but neither of these cities has a historic downtown.

The Memorial Hall in this location is important to San Ramon Valley’s history. Reproductions are not the same. Buildings which have served public purposes are particularly significant to any community’s past. The handsome brick monument in the heart of Danville and the hall itself remind us of sacrifices made for our country.If walls could speak, there would be generations of stories told, from sweethearts who met at the dances, to youngreaders who discovered Shakespeare, to veterans who shared their memories with friends. The Veterans Hall continues to serve the community and serve it well.

Sources: News Notes of California Libraries (April 1926), Walnut Kernel (1941), Valley Pioneer (June 7, 1961; March 29, 1978), Tri-Valley Herald (May 5, 1996),Museum of the San Ramon Valley archives. Beverly Lane, a longtime Danville resident, is curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and co-author of “San Ramon Valley: Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon.”