Movement underway to preserve ‘a sense of place’ at structure that honors local veterans

It’s a familiar story in Palm Springs: A building that has seen better days, and an effort to revive it. But this building, and this effort, may be one of the community’s most important projects yet.

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).

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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.

Lee Wilson (far left) shows off details of the exterior of the American Legion building last week as Brad Dunning (center) and Susan Secoy Jensen (right) look on.

The name of the building gives a clue about its historical value.

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.

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope entertain a radio audience at the Palm Springs American Legion Post 519 during its heyday.

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.”

Lee Wilson, who serves as historian for the Palm Springs American Legion, shows a picture of the “Lamella” roof in place above a drop ceiling at the Legion building.

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.

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