The first American Legion post, founded in Paris in the wake of World War I, is celebrating its centennial this week, while also working hard to return to its historic home in Pershing Hall. Evicted 28 years ago from the elegant memorial by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Post 1 is negotiating to recover some office space from a new leaseholder and, most of all, the art and artifacts stripped from the locale in 1991.
Built as a private mansion in the French capital in the late 19th century, Pershing Hall was purchased by the American Legion in 1928 through private donations in France and abroad. It was dedicated to General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI and later head of the American Battle Monuments Commission. The ABMC was among a dozen American organizations that kept offices in the building, above a popular bar and clubroom on the ground floor. It was nicknamed “The Second American Embassy” in Paris and served as a social hub for American expatriates.
The U.S. government, through the VA, took ownership of Pershing Hall in 1938 after poor management left the building in tax debt and in danger of a takeover by the French government. Over the years, various rooms were decorated with plaques and artwork by American organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the American Club, and universities including the University of Virginia, Yale and Harvard. After World War II, the building was run by the Pershing Hall Operating Committee, a group whose management was widely seen as less than optimal. Alarmed by reports of corruption, the VA sent an inspector in 1991, who evicted all tenants across the board. When some Post 1 veterans refused to leave, he called the police.
“They invoked the ‘fire hazard’ clause, which is a commonly known ruse to quickly evict leaseholders to prevent them from exercising their rights. The Legion had only a few hours to grab what they could before being locked out,” said Curtis Bartosik, an Army veteran and Post 1 historian.
Bartosik, who joined Post 1 in 2012, has been working to locate artifacts and the many works of art that were scattered at the time—some to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, some to storage at the Franco-American Museum at Blérancourt or at ABMC headquarters in Paris, while other items were shipped back to VA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Among the items in storage in France are four busts by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Paul Jones and the Marquis de Lafayette.
The VA communications director, Ndidi Mojay, said discussions currently are underway to transfer custody of the art and artifacts to the ABMC. She declined to provide an inventory of the items.
In 1998 the VA gave a 99-year lease on Pershing Hall to a group called LA Partners, which did a major renovation, hiring top decorator Andrée Putman and putting up one of the first vertical garden walls in Paris. Three years later, Pershing Hall opened as a boutique hotel and nightclub-restaurant, profiting from its proximity to the elite fashion and high-finance businesses around the Champs-Elysées. In 2016, the restaurant owner declared that it did nearly $8 million in business; then in 2018, the group closed the hotel. Pershing Hall was the only memorial that the VA managed as a privately owned hotel.
The terms of the LA Partners’ lease had required giving the American Legion access to the building on Memorial Day, Veterans Day and July 4, but Bartosik said the welcome was less than warm. He discovered the access clause only after obtaining a copy of the lease through a Freedom of Information Act request to the VA. He said post members had been “demoralized” by the sequence of events.
“Pershing Hall was part of our identity and we hadn’t set foot in the building for years,” he said.
The ABMC was directed by a congressional resolution (passed 405-0 in 1991) to provide and oversee a memorial for WWI soldiers in Pershing Hall. The ABMC and Paris Post 1 work closely together and maintain a “positive, collaborative relationship,” said ABMC communications director Astrid Gaudefroy, responding to emailed questions. Pershing Hall retains its status as a memorial, and the ABMC has stored items taken from it in the 1990s, but the VA is responsible for managing it, she said.
The American Legion would like to change that. Its National Executive Committee passed a resolution in 2016 in favor of “legislation to transfer custodianship of the Pershing Hall building and artifacts from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the American Battle Monuments Commission and […] that Pershing Hall retain its identity as a memorial to General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces.”
The VA spokeswoman said the department is not aware of any request for a transfer of custodianship of the building. The U-shaped Pershing Hall, located at 49 rue Pierre Charron in Paris’ 8th arrondissement, totals 3,000 square feet of space on three floors around a courtyard. It still has many original decorations such as the American Legion symbol above the entrance door and in wrought-iron balustrades inside. It was appraised in 1991 at $82 million; the VA said it is unaware of any more recent valuations.
The LA Partners’ lease has been picked up by a London-based investment group, which plans to turn Pershing Hall into office and retail space. While Paris Post 1 hopes to find a foothold in the new iteration of the Hall, the VA spokeswoman said the new managers would maintain the three yearly visits by Post members as in the past.
“It’s about more than just rental space. It’s to maintain the legacy,” said Post Vice Commander Bryan Schell, a Navy veteran.
When he joined the post in January, Schell found members had given up hope. The Post had found an office near the Gare de Lyon, but it was a mess. Schell and Bartosik pitched in to revive the group, whose eldest member, a Korean war veteran, is 86. There are about 30 members in Paris and 270 worldwide. They field queries about veterans’ overseas service and burials and present a color guard at Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. Post members, along with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Scouts of America, regularly attend ceremonies at ABMC cemeteries and monuments around France. The Post also maintains the American Legion Mausoleum in the New Cemetery at Neuilly-sur-Seine, where nearly 300 U.S. veterans and family members are interred.
“We would like to have a solid foundation so we can be a more active and creative group, and offer more support for veterans in general,” Schell said. Among potential projects is leading veterans’ tours of France’s many battlefield memorials.
To that end, Paris Post 1 has inaugurated the Myron T. Herrick award, named for the dynamic U.S. ambassador (1909-12 and 1921-29) who led the U.S. effort in the early days of WWI and then postwar returned to help get France back on its feet. At a centennial gala on Saturday, December 14, the Post will bestow the award on John Crawford, vice chairman of the board of governors of The American Hospital of Paris, in recognition of his devoted service to the American community in France. Crawford recently helped form the American Battle Monuments Foundation to support historic preservation projects worldwide. Two previous honorees were David McGovern, also a retired lawyer and Hospital board member, and Charles Rivkin, U.S. ambassador to France 2009-13. On Friday, Post members will hold a ceremony to light the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
At Pershing Hall’s 1930 dedication, General Pershing said: “If The American Legion is a powerhouse of friendship and kindness, then this building is its greatest substation, from which will flow a steady current of understanding. And I hope that our French friends will ever feel that this building is their home as it is our home.”