Established in 1867, the Central Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton, Ohio (now the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center) was one of the three original branches in the National Home system, which provided medical and rehabilitative care to Union veterans after the Civil War. The Central Branch was the first branch laid out using a decentralized plan with a grid pattern for the streets and a Picturesque style landscape for the parks and gardens surrounding the campus core. This campus plan served as a model for the remaining National Home branches and later VA hospitals. Located east of the modern medical facility, 28 pre-1930 buildings survive including the Putnam Library (Building 120) and the Home Chapel (Building 118). In addition to the numerous buildings from the National Home period, the Central Branch also illustrates its transition from a Civil War era domiciliary to modern VA medical facility, as illustrated by the 1940 Colonial Revival Patrick Hospital (Building 302). Elements of the Picturesque style landscape like the lake and the grotto arch still remain on the eastern edge of campus. Dayton's still-active National Cemetery dates from 1867 and includes the graves of veterans who served as early as the Revolutionary War and the first U.S. Colored Troops admitted to a National Home branch.
The Board of Managers wanted to place a National Home branch in the lower Midwest to serve the large veteran population in the area. The board’s secretary, Lewis B. Gunkel, a Dayton native, convinced the board to locate the new National Home branch in Dayton, Ohio. The City of Dayton donated $20,000 for the purchase of land for the facility. In 1867, the board acquired 380 acres of farm land to the west of Dayton and began construction immediately.
Thomas Budd Van Horne, a veteran and chaplain, designed the Central Branch. Van Horne laid out the campus with a grid pattern for streets with the major thoroughfare dividing the barracks from the administrative offices to mimic a small village. This layout created small neighborhoods or sections on the campus. Van Horne designed large parks and open spaces around the streets and buildings. While the administrative buildings were laid out in a grid pattern, the parks and open space had a curvilinear pattern with extensive walking paths and gardens. Mr. C. B. Davis designed the gardens. The natural feel of the gardens and the parks provided the veterans with an enjoyable place to spend their time, since they could not return to work. The gardens and parks were so attractive that tourists made day trips out to the Central Branch to enjoy the natural beauty. The Board of Managers reported that 100,000 people visited the Central Branch annually in the mid-1870’s.
The historic core of the Central Branch is on the eastern portion of the campus. This section consists of buildings from both the National Home era and the early Veterans Administration era, which are intermixed throughout this part of the facility. The western portion of the campus houses the modern hospital and parking lots. The National Cemetery occupies the entire northern portion of campus. The architectural styles of the original buildings from the National Home period vary, but the buildings are mainly in the revival styles popular in the last quarter of the 19th century. The buildings that have survived are reminders of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers' goal of providing veterans with a homelike environment and a place to recreate.
Dedicated in 1870, the Soldiers Home Chapel (Building 118) is the oldest building at the Central Branch and the first National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers stand alone chapel. The Gothic Revival chapel features a bell tower that holds the 1876 “Centennial Bell,” which was made in New York from cannons captured from Confederate forces during the Civil War. Both Catholic and Protestant services were held in the chapel until the construction of the Catholic Chapel (Building 119) in 1898. The Catholic Chapel, also built in the Gothic Revival style, is made of yellow brick with buttresses supporting it. The small bell tower has an octagonal spire rising from a square tower. The altar’s centerpiece is by Heinrich Schroeder, a widely known altar/pulpit builder for Catholic Churches.
Just south of the chapels, the Administration Building (Building 116), also known as the Headquarters Building, was constructed in 1871 in the French Second Empire style. Across from the Administration Building, the modified Flemish-style Putnam Library (Building 120) dates from 1880. The library closed in 2000. Now the American Veterans Heritage Center, Inc., which advocates for and assists in the preservation of the historic district, uses the building for offices. Just south of the Administration Building is the old Bandstand (Building 113) that dates from 1871 and was the focal point of the parade ground. Highly ornamental ironwork and wood trim decorate the exterior of the Italianate structure.
Located just west of the recreational buildings, the Italianate style Liberty House (Building 225) served as an amusement hall from the time it was built in 1870 until the construction of a new clubhouse in 1881. After that time, the building served as officers’ quarters. Additional revival-style staff quarters from the period between 1870 and 1885 surround the Liberty House.
The 1881 Clubhouse (Building 129) provided a place for the veterans to play billiards and other games, in addition to being a meeting space for clubs. The two-story Renaissance Revival style brick building has quoined corners on a stone base. The interior has a central hallway that divides the building into two sections.
In 1868, Frank Mundt, a landscape gardener, began planting vines in rock crevices at Grotto Springs on the lower east side of the historic district. The landscaping became quite elaborate over time. The stone steps, Grotto Arch constructed around 1900 of roughly hewn lime stone, and two springs remain. Nearby is the Swan House (Building 111), a small wooden gazebo-type structure built in the Stick style with 12 columns supporting the square-shaped hipped roof.
The early Veterans Administration era buildings on the campus date from 1930 to 1959. The peak of this new construction at the Dayton VAMC was between 1936 and 1940 when the medical center received funding from New Deal programs. These buildings were erected quickly to provide jobs for men and in preparation for war in Europe, as tensions mounted. Centrally located on campus, the three-story brick Colonial Revival Patrick Hospital (Building 302) dates from 1940. The building is currently used for outpatient mental health services. Just west of the hospital are two Colonial Revival domiciliary facilities (Buildings 409 and 410) and a Dining Hall (Building 411) also from 1940.
The historic cemetery to the north of the campus is largely intact. The cemetery design is attributed to Chaplain and Captain William B. Earnshaw, who worked on National Cemeteries in Tennessee as well. He arrived at the Central Branch in 1867 with the first residents and stayed there until he died in 1885. The Dayton Soldiers’ Monument was created in 1877 to honor the veterans buried in the cemetery. The cemetery is still active and enlarged as needed to make room for more veterans.
A number of the historic buildings at the Central Branch are in need of restoration. The American Veterans Heritage Center works to promote the preservation of the Central Branch's historic resources. Its first goal is to restore the Soldiers Home Chapel, and the organization has successfully restored the floor of the building to make it safe to walk on again. The next projects include the Patient Library, Clubhouse, and Administration building. All of the funding for restoration comes from donations.