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During this Veteran's Day weekend, a group of old soldiers will be working in a quiet wood-paneled room above downtown Los Angeles, sorting through 200 years of U.S. war artifacts. For the first time in eight decades, veterans are vacating Patriotic Hall, a ten story Renaissance-style landmark dedicated to L.A.'s veterans in 1926. Rob Schmitz of member station KQED has the story.
ROB SCHMITZ: Jay Morales(ph) rolls up his sleeve and plunges his right hand into history. He rummages through a box of old photos, tobacco tins, gas masks - all World War I artifacts. His finger is suddenly stabbed by something at the bottom of the box.
JAY MORALES: This is the barbed wire that they used at the Western front.
SCHMITZ: Wire that 90 years later and halfway around the world from where it came hasn't lost its bite. This old Budweiser box is one of hundreds full of objects from every American conflict since the Civil War. They're scattered around the hardwood eighth floor of L.A.'s Bob Hope Patriotic Hall. Throughout its history, this hall served many roles - headquarters for various veterans groups, a place for soldiers to get help finding jobs after their service and where they could receive counseling. Vietnam veteran Jay Morales's father, himself a World War II vet, brought him here regularly as a young child.
MORALES: Yeah I used to come in this building and used to be in awe that, you know, like going to church. You know, you walk into a church like a cathedral. And that's what it meant to me. This is a veterans cathedral.
SCHMITZ: The hall's presence is felt immediately upon entering the lobby with its marble floors and vaulted arches, floor to ceiling murals depicting soldiers at war throughout U.S. history. Other floors are decorated with photos of veterans, famous battles. The building houses a library that holds one of the nation's two complete sets of civil war records. Lawrence Tritle is a history professor at Loyola Marymount.
LAWRENCE TRITLE: I cannot think of a comparable building that houses so much in the way of the history of the United States from the Civil War on, or that tells the story of those who served the flag through the years.
SCHMITZ: But after decades of activity, the hall is now quiet. L.A. County is moving all the veteran's offices out while it studies whether to renovate the building.
MORALES: This is another one of those things...
SCHMITZ: Jay Morales takes a break from work and climbs the stairs to the hall's roof to show why he thinks county politicians might have other plans for the building.
MORALES: From this point of view right here, with this 360 degree view of the city, you can see physically how valuable the property is in relation to what's going on economically in Los Angeles.
SCHMITZ: Below him stand the Staple Center, new loft developments, new hotels. This neighborhood is undergoing an unprecedented development boom, raising concern among some veterans that the county will someday find a more lucrative tenant. The $43 million price tag on the renovation has worried at least one county supervisor, who's asked staff whether or not the veterans should be permanently moved elsewhere. But county officials say they've promised veterans they can return to the hall if and when the building is renovated.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLEAN-UP)
SCHMITZ: Back on the eighth floor of Patriotic Hall, Morales and other veterans clean up broken glass from old black and white photos of World War II vets. Morales says the hall was here for him when he returned from war and needed a place to feel at home.
MORALES: Iraq and Afghan vets have come in this building and felt the same feeling. One in particular, who's doing his third tour in Iraq right now, a Marine staff sergeant, who came here as a young private fresh out of boot camp, and I said, this is your new home, Greg. And I'll be damned if I'm going to allow or all of us are going to allow this to go away, because it's his heritage and it's the heritage of future generations.
SCHMITZ: Morales believes that whatever the cost, the county has an obligation to L.A.'s one million veterans to return the hall to its original splendor. For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.
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