Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs Director Dennis Wimer wasn’t sure who said it at the dedication ceremony in 1925. Perhaps it was then-American Legion National Commander James A. Drain. But one of the speakers on June 17 that year predicted that the new building at 777 North Meridian Street in Indianapolis, first of the Indiana War Memorials Commission plaza, was destined to be “a center of service for veterans” for decades to come.
On Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, that prophecy was both remembered and renewed.
American Legion National Commander Paul E. Dillard unveiled a new Indiana Historical Marker Bureau sign in front of the rebuilt original permanent national headquarters of The American Legion, which has been transformed into a high-tech “one-stop shop” to provide multiple services for Hoosier veterans and their families. Wednesday’s ceremony to unveil the new marker was both a celebration of the Legion’s legacy as original tenants and a forecast for the future of the Indiana Veterans’ Center.
Installation of the marker honoring The American Legion’s early accomplishments ensures that future veterans will understand that the building has been a hub of honor and service for former members of the U.S. Armed Forces, Dillard suggested.
“History was made inside these walls,” Dillard told a crowd of about 200 at the unveiling ceremony, including members of the American Legion National Executive Committee in Indianapolis for their annual fall meetings. “Here, the founding generation of Legionnaires wired together more than 15,000 community posts across the land. Serving community, state and nation, those posts would establish an identity now described as ‘Veterans Strengthening America.’ Here, the first in tens of millions of dollars in American Legion youth scholarships were processed. Here, Legionnaires assembled and distributed more than 30 million guides for schools, cities and states … this later became U.S. Flag Code. From 777 North Meridian, The American Legion demanded that the federal government fix a corrupt and dysfunctional mix of agencies that was supposed to provide services for suffering wartime veterans. In 1930, that demand became the U.S. Veterans Administration.”
A century’s worth of American Legion accomplishments had to be boiled down to two 50-word paragraphs for the sign. “There is so much research and documentation that goes into supporting these markers,” explained Casey Pfeiffer, Historical Marker Program director for the State of Indiana, who thanked American Legion National Headquarters staff for meeting strict documentation requirements.
Dillard explained that such American Legion institutions as Boys State, American Legion Baseball and the National Oratorical Contest were conceived in the original permanent headquarters. “And the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 – the GI Bill of Rights that transformed America after World War II – was strategized and steered to passage from decisions made here.”
U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. (ret.) J. Stewart Goodwin, executive director of the Indiana War Memorials Commission, tracked the history of the building since a state budget allocation of $2.2 million “at a time when a gallon of milk cost five cents” made it a reality in 1925. “Since then, this building has continually been used in assisting veterans.”
After national American Legion operations moved into its bigger building on the plaza at 700 North Pennsylvania Street in 1950, the American Legion’s Department of Indiana and American Legion Auxiliary National Headquarters were based there. The structure was placed on the National Historic Landmarks Registry in 1994 and continued to serve as home to the Indiana American Legion’s state office until 2014.
That was when Gen. Goodwin and retired U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Brown, then head of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs, began formulating a new kind of resource center for veterans – one that would provide local, state, federal and veterans service organization programs under one roof. “The Indiana Veterans’ Center is the first of its kind,” Goodwin told the crowd. “777 was the ideal location.”
However, it would need a lot of work.
”The nearly 100-year-old building needed significant updates, to include asbestos and mold remediation,” Goodwin explained. New restrooms, elevators, ramps and internet infrastructure were needed, as was a new entry to the building. To bring the entire structure into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, modernize its utilities, and maintain respect for the historic marble floors, the original National Executive Committee room on the fourth floor and other features, it would take $7.5 million. Funded from a variety of different state budgets, the center opened in 2020 and has done as planned, with state, federal, local and veterans service organization providers helping Indiana veterans and their families from all 94 of the state’s counties.
“To the best of our knowledge, there is no other place in the United States that provides all these services in one location for veterans,” Goodwin said. “We are extremely proud to be on the forefront.”
“May the spirit of our founders guide the Indiana Veterans’ Center through a future most certain to make more history from this cherished place,” Dillard said before he uncovered the marker in a light rainfall. “It has been an honor since 1925 for The American Legion to call such a place our first real home, and we are delighted that this new Indiana Historical Bureau marker will remind visitors in perpetuity of all the history that was made right here.”
Following the ceremony, members of the current NEC toured the center, where they saw the familiar desks occupied by their ancestors in the organization, along with other historic features preserved in the new center.