Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: A NATIONAL World War I Memorial

Contributed by Courtland Jindra

After World War One, communities large and small throughout the USA struggled with how best to remember their fallen.  Large memorials built by the federal government were very uncommon back then, so local and state leaders took up the slack. Debates raged between those who sought statues or monuments and others who favored “living memorials".

Armistice Day 1918 in Los Angeles

Los Angeles faced much the same quandary. Over twenty three thousand Angelenos had served in the armed forces and within weeks after the Armistice, discussions on how best to honor the troops had become heated.  Eventually, like many municipalities, it opted for both types of memorial.  Early on Exposition Park was chosen as a prime location for what would become southern California's grandest.  Initial thoughts for a living memorial there had been vague. The Los Angeles Times advocated a hospital in an early editorial, but despite some initial interest by stakeholders, that was quickly dropped. Other proposals in the Times included a library with a adjoining museum, a music hall, to building/renaming scores of city streets (the most unusual suggestion was making a lot of sidewalks in the city memorials with readable text every block or so).
Many memorials were completed, but the major city project ended up coming down to two finalists. A grand obelisk was proposed for Pershing Square (which was a long time park renamed for the General just a week after the Armistice). This was really a stunning suggestion complete with two base levels on which statues of eight allied commanders would stand. Four 20-foot tall tablets containing the names of all United States war dead were to surround the sides. The structure would have had a viewing platform at the top with a bronze statue of a woman above that, signifying "Victory" (she also would have had a spotlight on her at night). From the top of "Victory" to the bottom of the base level, the memorial would have stood 250 feet over the city (becoming the tallest structure in LA at the time). It was a remarkable set of ideas that this summary can only partially do justice to, and would have contended as the most imposing commemorative structure to the World War built in the US.

The Los Angeles Coliseum Under Construction, 1922

The other finalist was a memorial stadium and amphitheater.  There was no large scale stadium in LA, and the city was already eyeing a bid to host the Olympics. The idea became to marry the two together.  After some debate, the stadium project won approval.  The vast majority of people seemed to think that monuments would be forgotten about, but useful structures would live forever (ironic since many memorial buildings have not lasted).  

The City of Angels was not the only entity to build a stadium as a memorial; several universities did so right after the war (it had become a trendy way to raise money to get new facilities built). Groundbreaking on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum began in 1921 on what had been an abandoned horse track and within sixteen months the venue was completed. The impressive architecture was modeled on traditional Roman style and a small piece from the Roman Colosseum flanks the entrance with a rock from Olympia, Greece. The University of Southern California (USC) soon began to use the facility becoming the most well known and longest lasting tenant. In fact, though the State of California owns the Coliseum, in recent years USC was awarded a master lease to manage the property until 2111.

Japanese Contingent, Opening Ceremonies, 1932 Olympics
City leaders were no doubt pleased when the new stadium helped convince the International Olympic Committee to award the 1932 Games to Los Angeles. In the years that followed the Coliseum hosted numerous events, athletic and otherwise. Notable among the the list are two Olympics (the only stadium to ever be so honored), two Super Bowls (including the very first), a World Series, appearances by generals, dignitaries, and statesmen such as George Patton, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Pope John Paul II, and Nelson Mandela.

Super Bowl I, 1967
That is not to say the stated purpose of the facility was forgotten. Annual Armistice (later Veterans) and Memorial Day observances began almost immediately and lasted for decades. At the first Armistice Day ceremony in 1923, the LA Times estimated 100,000 people visited the Exposition Park area to pay tribute. Grand parades of several thousand war heroes, from the Civil War onward, used to march from all around with spectators crowding the roadways. On they went, into the stadium where usually 20,000–30,000 more people sat for the memorial programs.

Given the historic and national nature of the venue, on Veterans Day 1968 the stadium was rededicated, not just to those from LA who served, but to all American WWI veterans. This national distinction is special to the Coliseum as it is one of just a handful of memorials that pay tribute to the entirety of U.S. involvement, and the only stadium that I am aware of. All other memorial stadiums honor city, state, or school war veterans/dead (and/or rededicated to honor multiple wars).

In 1972 ceremonies at the Coliseum suddenly stopped appearing in the LA Times archives. My first thought was it was the divisiveness over Vietnam. However, reading the 12 November 1971  story more closely, I was alerted to the fact that that was the year the government changed both holidays from their traditional observances to three-day weekends. Only 200 people showed up on actual Armistice Day in '71, and it seemed like no one was sure if they should be celebrated on the new days or the traditional ones.  Given no future story was found, I think everyone must have just thrown their hands up and given up. Obviously Veterans Day was moved back to 11 November a few years later, but the damage was apparently done. 

1968 National Dedication Plaque

However, this tradition is being reestablished by current management. Just this past November the Coliseum was opened up to all people to come visit on Veterans Day to ruminate on both the history of the facility and the reason it was constructed. Plans are already in the works for the yearly Memorial and Veterans Day tributes to come back. No one can doubt the impressiveness of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, or the sheer size of the Indiana War Memorial district, but it could be argued that no WWI memorial in the States is better known than the Coliseum. As the plaque that resides in the Court of Honor of the peristyle reads, “May the torch of freedom always burn bright.”

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