Veterans Memorial Building:

85 Years Old With

New Exterior Paint and Renewed Focus

By Harriett Burt

It was supposed to be the “War to End All Wars” when veterans of the American Expeditionary Forces came home to Contra Costa County in 1918 and 1919 – the end of the Great War, which only 20 years later had to be renamed World War I.

All over the country, cities and counties quickly began building structures in honor of the fallen, such as the Monument of Monument Boulevard in what is now Pleasant Hill and memorial buildings such as the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco and the Veterans Memorial Building in Martinez, the county seat of Contra Costa County.

In 1924, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors created a fund for memorial buildings in seven cities in the county to honor the 76 county residents who died in service to their country.  The Board levied a tax of one mill per hundred of real property dollars, which was used to build a brick structure on the corner of Ward and Court Streets.  The previous structures on the site were the barn and outbuildings of wealthy Martinez businessman Simon Blum’s estate on the site at the turn of the century.

A Richmond architect prepared plans and specifications for a 6,890 square foot structure that would include a main hall (now called the auditorium), a card room, lockers, industrial kitchen, club room with fireplace and office on the main floor, and a swimming pool in the basement where Red Cross swimming lessons could be given to the town’s youngsters.

Originally, the Martinez building was the only one of the seven county memorial buildings to include a swimming pool in the basement, an idea far ahead of its time and far ahead of the engineering ability of the period to make it leak proof on the hilly site.  After trying to repair the damage and forestall any leaks in the future, the Hall’s board of trustees decided in 1932 to board over the pool and convert the space into lodge rooms, a dining room and a dance floor.

Bids were requested with preference to be given “first to bidders using materials manufactured or produced in the County of Contra Costa, and second, that preference will be given to local bidders where bids are equal.”

On August 15, 1924, contractor H. S. Mendenhall was awarded the contract for his $11,296.00 bid, which later included an additional charge of $1,000.50 to complete a work order to add an additional 12’8” of length at the deep end of what was called the swim tank.  Mendenhall was directed to complete the construction of the building in 150 days although there is no record of when it was finished and when it was dedicated for use.

The county paid for the construction and then turned the maintenance and upkeep of the building over to the veterans organizations in the community.  Henry McNamara Post 29 of the American Legion, formed in 1919, and Sidney Severns Post 1351 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, established in 1924, took over the operation, forming a five-member Board of Trustees, with an alternating pattern of three members from the Legion and two members from the VFW one year and the reverse the following year.

A member of both organizations since his return from service in World War II, former Mayor John Sparacino noted that for many years, peoples’ social lives revolved around their own town and the many organizations established within it.  So meetings of the Posts were regularly scheduled, banquets and dances and memorial observances occurred frequently and the building was often rented out for weddings and other special events.

Veterans needing any kind of assistance could seek out Martinez businessman and World War I veteran, Morris Hoffman, the County’s Veteran Affairs representative.  When it involved the need for money, that often came directly out of Hoffman’s wallet while he was standing in his shop on the corner of Main and Ferry Streets.  In recent decades, according to current Board member and building manager, Dave Jackson, information and referrals were no longer available at the hall on an organized basis, although for years there was a Federal Veteran’s Affairs office in the building.

Over the years, as the active membership of the two organizations and their ‘ladies auxiliaries” declined, both through attrition and the reluctance of Vietnam veterans to risk negative reactions from the public and older veterans, the financial burden of maintaining the building and attracting rentals became greater and greater – even with the rental of various rooms to the County for juvenile courtrooms.

Fast forward to the recent project to paint the County Library building, located across Ward Street from the Veterans Hall. Through the generosity of Shell Oil Products US in Martinez and its contractors, the 1940 building was painted a tasteful shade of green with accent colors improving the look amazingly.

That project, organized by Cathy Ivers of the Shell Public Affairs staff, earned much praise and appreciation from the town.  For Cathy, not only was it a satisfying project but it also encouraged her to see if Shell could do more.

Cathy recalls looking across Ward Street from the library and being struck by the poor appearance of the Veterans Building at eighty years of age.  Seeing unaccented and peeling institutional cream paint on a building in sad disrepair surrounded overgrown shrubs and trees, she had another vision in mind.

“I just have this love of architecture and this passion to make Martinez beautiful.  I am fortunate to work for a company that is very community-oriented and with the resources to help out,” she says. 

At the same time, a new group of Vietnam veterans from Martinez and surrounding communities stepped up to serve on the buildings’ Board of Trustees.  With energy and a mission to restore the building - both physically and as a center to provide service to veterans of all wars current and past – they faced some hard truths: fewer special-event rentals and loss of the county courts and an aging structure with no provision for handicap access, no lift or elevator between the first and second floors, an outdated kitchen, no air conditioning and old electric wiring.  And, the exterior was in desperate need a new coat of paint.  The Board faced a daunting task.

One day last year, Cathy was talking to her good friend and neighbor, Debbie Zamaria, and the subject of the Veterans Building came up.   Lamenting the neglected state of the building, Cathy told Deb that she was going to propose to her boss that painting the Veterans Hall would be another great project for Shell.

Thus did need and resources come together in the summer of 2009.  But first, it was found that the building was covered with lead-based paint which would require costly removal.  That was solved when the county agreed to pay for the lead removal.  Shell and its contractors could then begin painting the building

Cathy told a local newspaper she was “pleased as punch to act as “general contractor,’”  “There are very few small towns that have important infrastructure downtown.  We like preserving the beauty and the heritage.”

E. E. Gilbert Construction, Inc. brought in a backhoe to remove the old overgrown shrubs against the building, and N & N Tree Service provided stump removal.  Martinez landscape architect, Frank Kluber, designed a landscape plan and local landscaper, Pat McNamara, offered landscaping services.

Sherwin Williams agreed to donate paint and local house painter, Roy Jeans, soon put his trademark blocks of different colors on the walls so the color choices could be viewed and decisions made.  Redwood Painting, a long-time Shell vendor who had provided painters for the Library project, stepped up again while RSC brought in man-lifts, Brand Energy Services of California donated the use of scaffolding and Contra Costa Electric helped with electrical issues.  Once the lead abatement was completed in January, 2010, only the near constant rain delayed the painting project until finally, in early May, it was completed in about two weeks.  The landscaping is scheduled to be completed in the near future.

Main Street Martinez’s Facebook page was soon filled with positive comments and thanks from City officials, local residents and county employees.  The City Council proclaimed April 21, 2010 as “Shell Oil Day” for Shell’s ongoing help and support in the community, and this project was among those mentioned, with plaudits going to Cathy Ivers for the success of the project.

However, for Vietnam veterans and current Veterans Building board members, Dave Jackson, Tom Zamaria, Willie Jones, Carl Edwards and Board President, George May, Jr., of Concord, whose late father was commander of the Henry McNamara Post 29 in earlier years, the glow of the improved exterior look did not change the fact that money is needed to make interior improvements and upgrades.

So fundraising is ongoing according to Jackson who also serves as building manager.  As money accrues, the auditorium and lobby will be repaired, patched and painted.  Fortunately, he notes with a wry smile, the building’s plumbing and electrical systems are still working.

Volunteers Donna Mahoney, Debbie Zamaria, and Freda Jackson, are helping the cause with a weekly boutique and fundraisers and a special event planned for Saturday, August 7.  That day, the traveling “Quilts of Honor”, a display of over 35 patriotic quilts made by a committed group of volunteers to be given to wounded service personnel, will be available for viewing at the building.  Donna hopes to have a retired major general who served in Korea on hand to preside over the event.

The quilts will be on display from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Veterans Building in conjunction with the Peddlar’s Faire on Main Street. 

The Board is also establishing a series of “Oldies But Goodies” dances on Saturday evenings aimed at the over-40 age group with a deejay to play favorite dance tunes. 

In the meantime board members, including Zamaria who works at the Veterans Administration site in Martinez assisting veterans, are encouraging veterans and current service personnel home from Afghanistan and Iraq to call for referrals for services or to just drop by to talk or watch sports on a new large screen TV.

Going forward, the Board of Trustees, with support of Veterans organizations and service providers, plan to transform the venerable building on the inside, and provide services and friendly faces to ease the adjustment of the young veterans returning from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  A good-looking building and nicely designed grounds may not be everything, but it definitely is an inspiring new beginning for this 85 year-old historical gem and the people who love it and what it stands for.

Martinez Historical Society

1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553  (925) 228-8160