American Legion Building 777: ‘Nucleus of veteran activity’
By Kirsten Clark
On March 15, 1919, members of the American Expeditionary Force convened in Paris to form The American Legion. This historic event marked the start of an organization dedicated to creating and fighting for veteran benefits, resources and programs, while beginning a legacy of care for veterans in the state of Indiana, across the United States and beyond, that would continue for over a century.
The group’s war-weary veterans conducted their first convention in November 1919 in Minneapolis. They adopted a constitution and preamble and voted to establish a permanent national headquarters in Indianapolis. With more than 170 trains in and out of the Circle City on a daily basis, Indianapolis provided the ideal location for state and foreign department leaders to meet and create programs that would change the lives of American veterans and their families forever. With the location chosen, the new veteran group soon needed four walls and a roof.
In 1924, the state began construction at 777 N. Meridian St., on property designated by city planners for a Memorial Mall.
“A special Indiana legislative session in 1920 designated two downtown Indianapolis city blocks on state property and funneled $2.2 million to construct what is now the Memorial Mall,” said J. Stewart Goodwin, Indiana War Memorial executive director and retired Air Force brigadier general. “Building 777 was the first structure conceived on the state land and would become the Legion’s home.”
City planners initially sought to use the property to honor the nearly 135,000 Indiana veterans and 3,709 killed in action during World War I. So in 1931, the American Legion Mall was developed behind Building 777. It features a sunken garden with a cenotaph and four Art Deco columns topped with stylized golden eagles. It stands today in tribute to the Indiana veterans who gave their lives in World War I.
“Indianapolis has more memorials and space dedicated to our servicemembers and veterans than any other city in America except Washington, D.C.,” Goodwin said. “This area does serve as the World War I tribute city planners had intended.”
After construction was complete at 777 North Meridian in 1925, The American
Legion took up residence in the iconic four-story, 40,000-square-foot structure. The American Legion Auxiliary began operating from Building 777 in the years that followed. The location was so successful that by 1950, The American Legion had outgrown the building and moved to a new, larger location across the mall at 700 N. Pennsylvania St.
“We are now in a position to put this historic site back to work in a way that will provide tremendous benefit to veterans, their family members and caregivers,” said Dennis Wimer, Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs director. “The vision we have is to make Building 777 the nucleus of veteran activity, resources and accessibility in Indiana. Veterans will be able to access the help and resources they need in one location, one trip, one stop.”
The distinctive building needed a transformation before it could be made into the Indiana Veterans Center. The vision was to preserve all the detail of its 1920s charm and architecture while adding features to include updated ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, new elevators and restrooms on each floor. Renovations also incorporated other high-tech capabilities and modern amenities. With renovation complete, all divisions of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs have now relocated from the Indiana Government Center to the third floor of 777 North Meridian. IDVA divisions include the State Approving Agency (SAA), the Military Family Relief Fund, State Veteran Service Officers, Training and Services, Legal and Legislative, and Communications and Outreach. The central location also serves as a hub for the state’s six district service officers and veteran representatives from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.
In the early days of American Legion presence in Building 777, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, began its journey to completion. Through the GI Bill, signed into law in June 1944, a determined American Legion sought better benefits for men and women returning to civilian life after World War II, through education and training, home loans, farm and business financing, and more. Nearly 9 million veterans would take advantage of the GI Bill between 1944 and 1949, followed by millions more in the decades ahead. Many other veteran benefits and resources now offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs began with ideas from leaders who met and worked in Building 777.
Additional veteran agencies following IDVA to the Indiana Veterans Center are the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation (HVAF), INVets, and representatives from Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars. The location will also assist veterans with their medical and health-care enrollment and other federal benefits, as part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing Program (HUD-VASH). HUD-VASH is a collaborative program between HUD and VA which combines HUD housing vouchers with VA supportive services to help veterans and their families who are homeless find and sustain permanent housing. Representatives from the federal regional office are on hand to assist veterans in acquiring VA benefits and services.