The Armistice Chapel of Napa Valley's Veterans Home
By Rebecca Yerger
For decades, the Armistice Chapel faithfully served the Veterans Home of California residents. Having been constructed as World War I drew to its close, the church became known as the Armistice Chapel. Although its days as a place of worship have passed, it continues to be relevant to the present-day Yountville institution.
Established by Civil War veterans, or the Grand Army of the Republic, the local Home officially opened its doors in 1884. From that time and onward, residents have always had a place to worship as well as study and practice their doctrine of choice. However, the Armistice Chapel was the first formal church on the Veterans Home campus.
The Chapel was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. While its nomination form appears to have been prepared by different individuals over a two-year period, the opening paragraph of the final nomination version most concisely states the historical importance of the Armistice Chapel.
It said, “One of the oldest surviving structures on the Veterans Home grounds which retains most of its original integrity, the Armistice Chapel has contributed greatly to the welfare and to the social and spiritual lives of the thousands of war-time veterans who have come through the Veterans Home from 1919-1959. During that period, the Armistice Chapel was the only structure of its kind in the state of California, as it served the population of the only state facility for veterans.”
This later version of the nomination also cited the first service within the Chapel as being held in either February or March 1919. However, earlier drafts of the nomination stated the first service was held on or near Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Regardless of the actual date, the Chapel project began in 1917 with State Architect George MacDougall and his staff drafting the plans for the building. The 1979 form described the Chapel’s design as being “the simple English country Gothic style.” However, an earlier version of the nomination said, “They built it with a folksy, country-side appearance on the outside and architecturally artful on the inside.”
The stucco-finished exterior is understated with a non-sectarian cross of aluminum topping its steeple. As for the interior, it has a 25-and-one-half foot high ceiling with three trusses. Those supports are reminiscent of the 14th or 15th century English braced collar roof or wagon roof. These structural supports were created by the Home’s resident carpenter and Chapel project foreman, Ben Tarver. Using no glue or adhesives, Tarver laminated the trusses with bolts made in the Home’s machine shop. Many of the Chapel’s building supplies and elements were fabricated on-site by veterans. Tarver also crafted the sanctuary’s 28 pine pews. He was joined on the construction site by numerous other Veterans Home residents, including E.C. Borman and Walter Tonaschia.
The Chapel was a work-in-progress for sometime. For instance, in 1952, a sizable addition, or wing, was added to the Chapel’s southwestern corner. However, years earlier, a signature Armistice Chapel detail began in May 1925 with the Veterans Home Board of Directors awarding Smith and Company the $600 contract to create two leaded glass windows for the building.
An earlier version of the nomination described the windows at length. “An assemblage of rare glass created into a masterpiece cathedral window remains. Total completion of the Chapel was delayed because the two cathedral, stained-glass windows ‘came from a long way off and were a long time in getting here.’ Rarity is added to the beauty of the one window that fully remains today by the fact the glass is a creation of a ‘lost art.’” One of the pair of windows was removed and placed in the newly constructed Memorial Chapel.
With the dedication of that new church on November 8, 1959, the Armistice Chapel no longer served as the Home’s official place of worship. It became a social hall and eventually a storage space. Although not completely abandoned, the Armistice Chapel was in need of considerable attention due to dry rot and termite damage. At one point, circa 1973-1974, the Armistice Chapel was slated for demolition but was granted a reprieve due to its history. However, many years would pass before it underwent a full restoration.
Its merits for being restored were far more than its structural and architectural heritage. The Armistice Chapel was a keystone to the military way of life, conduct and tradition at the Veterans Home.
The 1979 nomination addressed this point. “Although the Armistice Chapel also was used as an extra theatre for plays and musical programs, one of the Chapel’s main functions was for the funerals of the Home’s residents and employees. The Home Cemetery had been started many years earlier, but now every veteran who was buried there received a full military funeral beginning with formal last rites officiated within the Chapel followed by a full procession by caisson to the Home Cemetery. As prescribed by military protocol, the Home’s band always played during the procession and burial.”
It continued, “In the period between 1931-1943, 1,049 funerals were performed in the Armistice Chapel.” During that period, four high profile services were officiated within the Armistice Chapel for two resident Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, the Home’s last Mexican War veteran and a leader in the Grand Army of the Republic movement. While these four Yountville veterans received grand military last rites, the Armistice Chapel honorably served over 17,000 veterans during its 40-year commission. For those who have, and are, serving this country, thank you!