Movement underway to preserve ‘a sense of place’ at structure that honors local veterans
It’s one of the most important buildings in all of Palm Springs, but most residents and visitors who have passed by it in recent years have probably never given it a second thought, let alone ventured inside. Now, a movement is underway to change that and return the unassuming structure “hidden in plain sight” to its rightful place in the public’s hearts and minds.
“It really has a great pedigree,” said Susan Secoy Jensen, an architect involved in many of the city’s important restorations, after touring the Palm Springs American Legion building along North Belardo Road last week. “I believe it can be absolutely amazing and contribute to the community both in architecture design and as an honor for those in our armed services.”
Secoy Jensen was among a handful of people who toured the building last week. The group included a who’s who of the most knowledgeable, dedicated historians and preservationists currently serving the city, including members of the Palm Springs Preservation Foundation (PSPF).
It also included two school teachers — both members of Palm Springs American Legion Post 519 — whose casual conversation a year ago led not only to the tour, but to the formation of a nonprofit organization that will soon kick off the daunting task of running a campaign to restore the building.
“School teachers know how to do so, so much at any one time,” said Marilyn Sullivan, a retired teacher and American Legion Auxiliary member who will serve as secretary of what is being called the Owen Coffman Memorial Building Restoration Foundation.
Owen Coffman was the son of Helen and Earl Coffman and the grandson of Nellie Coffman, owner of the Desert Inn and the city’s pre-eminent civic leader for much of the 20th century. Her son Earl founded Post 519 in 1934, holding meetings at the inn, which he managed. In 1944 the post was named in honor of Owen, a bomber pilot killed in action on his second mission of World War II.
Shortly after Owen’s death, the American Legion made plans to build a permanent “Wars Memorial Building” in the city. Land was donated by Nellie Coffman and Pearl McManus, architects John Porter Clark and Albert Frey were hired, and the community rallied to raise the funds. Construction began in the summer of 1947, and it was dedicated on Jan. 3, 1948.
The building immediately drew not only veterans and community members, but Hollywood elite. Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Doris Day, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Jack Benny — you name them, they graced the stage, often broadcasting to a nationwide radio audience.
“When this place first opened, it was the place for the community,” said Lee Wilson, a Marine Corp veteran and high school history teacher who serves as the Legion’s historian and president of the nonprofit. “We need to get it back to that.”
Veterans, their guests, and others who currently gather at the Palm Springs American Legion may no longer rub elbows with celebrities. But they find something far more important inside — camaraderie, along with good food, top-shelf liquor, and plenty of laughs.
Unfortunately, some of that laughter is fading, as fewer and fewer veterans feel compelled to Legion membership, Wilson said. The ranks of veterans are thinning as well. The Census Bureau estimates about 7% of U.S. adults are currently veterans, down from 18% in 1980.
Both Sullivan and Wilson said working to understand and fulfill the vision of current veterans of Post 519 is the most important part of the venture they’ve undertaken. Still, attracting more members is important if the building, and the land it sits on, are to remain in control of the American Legion.
“The younger vets say we don’t do anything for younger people, so they don’t want to join,” Wilson said during last week’s tour, pointing to excitement generated by plans to build a new Post 416 in Encinitas. “We’re trying to bring that back.”
The first step toward creating similar excitement in Palm Springs started with last week’s visit by Secoy Jensen and members of the PSPF.
“There is great promise here,” said Gary Johns, current PSPF president, as he toured the building which includes, among other features, a rare “Lamella” roof hidden above a drop ceiling.
Secoy Jensen agreed. She has been an integral part of work done on multiple important buildings in the city, including restoration of Kaptur Plaza and current efforts at the Town & Country Center. She said the Legion building, which was designated as a Class 1 historic site in 1999, is an equally important building “hidden in plain sight.”
“You could really give this building a renewed sense for what this place is — a sense of place,” said Secoy Jensen.
Whether the community is ready to recognize the building’s importance remains to be seen. The nonprofit is in its infancy and not quite ready to seek initial funds. Exactly how much would be needed is also unknown. The effort also comes at a time funds are being solicited for restoration of the city’s Plaza Theatre.
Wilson, Sullivan, and others who have been meeting since last April are in it for the long haul. They’re realistic that collaborating with Legion membership, fundraising, and the design and permitting phases will take years. Any grand re-opening could be three-to-five years away.
Secoy Jensen, for one, said the effort will be worth it, considering the building’s value goes beyond its architectural significance.
“It’s such an important piece of history on so many levels,” she said.
HONORING BETTY WHITE: The Palm Springs Animal Shelter is one of the thousands of organizations encouraging the public to donate in honor of Betty White today on what would have been her 100th birthday. The “Betty White Challenge” is an event gaining steam among fans on social media. The event encourages people to donate $5 to animal rescues or shelters in her name. The Palm Springs shelter is asking for donations here on Facebook. The social media company will pay all processing fees, assuring that 100% of the donations go directly to the local shelter. The shelter hopes to raise $10,000 during the vent.
HBCU TOURS: The African American Parent Advisory Council (AAPAC) of the Palm Springs Unified School District recently announced two dozen students will be able to attend a tour of Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in April completely free of charge. AAPAC encourages parents of students who wish to participate in the tour to apply before the Jan. 31 deadline. Selected students will fly with approved chaperones to Washington DC and visit several HBCU’s and landmarks in the surrounding area. An application form is available here, and a permission slip for the tour is available here.
MUSIC FEST POSTPONED: Organizers of The Oasis Music Festival announced last week the event, scheduled for Jan. 26 through 30 at venues throughout Palm Springs, will now be held May 11 through 15. Anyone with tickets for the January performances can expect them to be valid for the May performances. Those wishing to receive a refund can complete a form found in an email sent to ticketholders by the organizers. The music festival is one of several January events being postponed or canceled out of an abundance of caution due to the spread of the Omicron variant of COVD-19.
HOLIDAY CLOSURES: Federal, state and county offices will be closed today in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. City offices will also be closed. In addition, there is no mail service today and financial institutions are closed, as are schools, colleges, libraries, the Mizell Senior Center. Palm Springs Disposal Service will be on regular schedule. SunLine Transit administration offices are closed, but buses will run as usual.
Need to get tested for COVID-19 but can’t find an at-home test and don’t know where to turn? Aside from asking your regular healthcare provider (if you have one), The Post maintains a list of places in and around the city that you can check. Please note the information is accurate at the time this email was sent, but may change.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
COMMUNITY CLEANUP: The first Community Cleanup of 2022 will be held Saturday, Jan. 22. Organizers with the Community Partnership on Homelessness (CPOH) encourage anyone who wants to help beautify the city to meet at the KFC parking lot at 725 South Palm Canyon Dr., at 8 a.m. Trash bags, disposable gloves, and water will be available. Closed-toed shoes and thicker gloves are recommended for your protection.
DISTRICT 1 MEETING: Mayor Pro Tem Grace Garner is hosting a District 1 Town Hall on Saturday, Jan. 22, starting at 1 p.m. The event will be held via Zoom, using this link. Garner will update constituents on matters of importance to them and also listen to residents discuss their concerns.
BENEFIT FOR INSTRUMENTS: An online benefit to raise money to purchase musical instruments for 3rd, 4th, and 5th-grade students in the Palm Springs Unified School District is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 22. LA Phil Affiliates in the Desert and the PSUSD Foundation will host the event on Zoom at 3 p.m. as part of the Zoom Salon Series. Featured will be saxophonist Vasti Andrade, a senior at Desert Hot Springs High School who has played the saxophone since 6th grade. More information about the event, including how to register, can be found here.