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Santa Clara Valley Lives: Historical Los Altos American Legion works on landmark building status

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Courtesy of Kevin Newman
Veterans of World War I founded the Los Altos American Legion Post in 1938 and in 1940 built the hall themselves, spending nothing on labor and approximately $3,000 on materials.

Before there was a city of Los Altos, there was American Legion Post 558, founded in 1938 by local veterans of World War I. Its American Legion Hall, built by volunteers and completed in 1941, has survived recession, earthquake, war and a fire that destroyed the old Whitecliff Market across the street and led to the hall being used for a year as a grocery store.

During World War II, the hall was home to everything from Red Cross training classes to a Canteen Corps emergency kitchen and events for all branches of the military. During that time, no defense-related group was ever asked to pay rent.

Today, as the world wrestles with an international pandemic, the Post is in the midst of seeking landmark status for its historical structure at 347 First St. That quest involves paperwork, and the city of Los Altos recently announced plans to hire historical preservation consultants for the project.

“It is something I’ve been working on with the Post since 2015,” said former Historical Commissioner Denise Welsh, a local realtor and wife of longtime Post member Mike Welsh. “I have been encouraging them all along to get this done.”

Research done by third-generation member Ken Newman shows many of the original meetings for the incorporation of Los Altos were held at the hall, which served for years as the only community center in town. As the Los Altos News put it in 1941: “The Post, in building its fine home, has not only done something for itself, it has given the entire community a place in which to hold various civic gatherings.”

The Post scheduled its 52nd annual Crab Feed fundraiser for March 14, long before the novel coronavirus hit the headlines. Then, on March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. With just a few hours’ notice and perishables already on hand, members scrambled to increase the distance between place settings and tables, change the way food was handled and offer takeout meals to those who chose not to attend. In the end, approximately half of the 95 ticket holders came to dinner and most of the rest arranged for takeout.

Among those present: World War II veteran Irwin Martin of Los Altos, 94, who was on hand for the Post’s first crab feed 52 years ago. Long widowed, he attended this year’s event with his daughter and a friend from his square-dancing club.

“Because I attended every last one of them,” he answered when asked why he chose not to stay home. “And because I really like crab.”

The event took place just days before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order went into effect. It could be the last such celebration for some time.

Robin Chapman is a Los Altos native and a writer.

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