In the wake of World War I, on January 5, 1929, Senator Duncan U. Fletcher introduced a bill that would appropriate funds for a Soldiers' Home to be constructed in Florida. Ultimately the bill’s wording was changed from "Florida" to "southeastern states," but it did pass and appropriate $2 million for a home.
Within Pinellas County, a campaign immediately began to rally support for construction in the area, namely at the Seminole Point site (although for some time Clearwater was also in the running). Seminole Point was chosen as the site on May 26, 1931 - an event which newspapers called the "glorious news" that will "bring Saint Petersburg back." However, only $900,000 in funds was appropriated, due to a decision to use the $2 million also to construct a hospital in Mississippi and an African-American hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Construction of the first three buildings (what are now buildings 1, 2, and 13), a gatehouse, and employee living quarters (previously on the land given to St. Petersburg Junior College in 1973) were completed in 1933; the hospital by James I. Barnes Company from Indiana, and the living quarters by J. M. Raymond Construction Company from Jacksonville. The main hospital, under the name "National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers," and the domiciliary unit opened on March 16, 1933. Within days seventeen men joined the domiciliary, the first having been Pat Corr of St. Petersburg. The hospital, however, did not treat its first patient, Charles Boone, the Veterans of Foreign Wars State Commander from Miami, until March 19, 1933.
Construction continued, as plans were already in place for a Recreation Building (Building 20, completed in 1935), an expanded domiciliary (completed in 1940), and convalescent homes, when the main building opened. Additionally, the VA Regional Office of Florida was moved to Bay Pines, which changed its name from Seminole Point in 1934, from Jacksonville, where they had been located in 1925. Until World War II, construction was non-stop: a 52-bed domiciliary for female veterans opened in 1937 (building 24), a new hospital wing increased bed capacity to 245, and a hydrotherapy treatment pavilion on Madeira Beach was constructed in 1934.
World War II brought a surge in patients for which initial construction could not have planned. To increase space, the Regional Offices were moved to the Don Ce-Sar, recently vacated by the Army Air Corps., on Pass-a-Grille Beach and some offices, a brace shop, a chapel, and the library were moved to temporary Quonset-type huts.
But although building space was direly needed, Bay Pines had more than enough land and began to give away portions of the surplus land, beginning with 18 acres in 1955 for the construction of Madeira Beach School. Later issuances of land include 359 acres in 1966 to Pinellas County for War Memorial Park, 60 acres in 1973 to St. Petersburg Junior College, and 17.6 acres in 1974 to the Florida Department of Transportation.
Meanwhile, in September 1959, funds were approved for a much-needed 140 bed addition to be constructed in 1963. Additionally a domiciliary building was converted to add 160 hospital beds, opening by October 8, 1961. The 1963 hospital, however, never surfaced: instead, a new VA Hospital was announced for Gainesville, Florida. Although the issue would resurface many times in the following 15 years, new hospital construction would not be announced again until the late 1970’s.
The next major construction project was the original Nursing Home Care Unit, opened in 1973. Then in 1976, following the efforts of Congressman Bill Young and a visit by President Ford, $110 million in appropriations was announced for an addition to the Nursing Home Care Unit, a new domiciliary, the replacement hospital (Building 100) and renovations for Buildings 1 and 22. Prior to those projects, Building 23, the Clinical support Building opened on June 13, 1977.
The Nursing Home Care Unit addition and replacement Domiciliary were completed quickly - bids were accepted starting June 22, 1978 and both were dedicated October 21, 1980. The replacement hospital, however, was not completed until 1983 and dedicated on March 16, 1983. The restoration of Buildings 1 and 22 was not completed until July 1987.
In September 1998 the Regional Office returned to Bay Pines with the completion of a three-story, 125,000 square feet building on-site. Previously the Regional Office had moved from the Don Ce-Sar to a federal building on First Avenue in St. Petersburg in 1967.
Since its original construction in 1933, Bay Pines has continued to expand and adapt to meet the increasing needs of the veterans it serves.
Today’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) originated during the Civil War as the first federal hospitals and domiciliaries ever established for the nation’s volunteer forces.
On March 3, 1865, a month before the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the first-ever national soldiers’ and sailors’ asylum to provide medical and convalescent care for discharged members of the Union Army and Navy volunteer forces. The asylum was the first of its kind in the world.
Two early soldiers’ homes were very small and housed up to 300 men. They provided medical care and long-term housing for thousands of Civil War veterans.
The national homes were often called “soldiers’ homes” or “military homes.” Initially only soldiers and sailors who served with the Union forces — including U.S. Colored Troops — were eligible for admittance. The first National Home opened near Augusta, Maine on November 1, 1866.
Many programs and processes begun at the national homes continue at VHA today. They were the first to accept women Veterans for medical care and hospitalization beginning in 1923.
By 1929, the national homes had grown to 11 institutions that spanned the country. All of the national homes have operated continuously since they opened.
On August 9, 1921, Congress created the Veterans Bureau by combining three World War I Veterans programs into one bureau.
World War I was the first fully mechanized war and soldiers exposed to mustard gas and other chemicals required specialized care. Tuberculosis and neuro-psychiatric hospitals opened to accommodate Veterans with respiratory or mental health problems.
Native Americans, on November 6, 1919, became eligible for full Veterans benefits, including health care. In 1924, Veterans’ benefits were liberalized to cover disabilities that were not service-related. In 1928, admission to the National Homes was extended to women, National Guard, and militia Veterans.
The second consolidation of federal Veterans programs took place on July 21, 1930 when President Herbert Hoover consolidated the Veterans Bureau with the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and Pension Bureau and re-designated it as the Veterans Administration.
General Frank Hines, Director of the Veterans Bureau since 1923, became the first Administrator of the VA. His tenure lasted 22 years and ended in 1945 when General Omar Bradley took the helm. In 1930, VA consisted of 45 hospitals. By 1945, the number had more than doubled to 97.
World War II ushered in a new era of expanded Veterans' benefits through the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly referred to as the "G.I. bill", which was signed into law on June 22, 1944. General Omar Bradley took the reins at VA in 1945 and steered its transformation into a modern organization. In 1946, the Department of Medicine and Surgery was established within VA. VA was able to recruit and retain top medical personnel by modifying the Civil Service system. The first women doctors were hired in 1946. When Bradley left in 1947, there were 125 VA hospitals.
Dr. Paul Magnuson, a VA orthopedic surgeon and Chief Medical Director, 1948-1951, led the charge to create an affiliation program with America’s medical schools for medical research and training purposes. By 1948, 60 medical schools were affiliated with VA hospitals. Over the years, these collaborations resulted in groundbreaking advances in medicine, nursing, medical research, and prosthetics.
In the post-World War II period, 90 new and replacement Veterans hospitals were planned.
The first-ever successful human liver transplant operation took place at the Denver VA Medical Center in May 1963 under Dr. Thomas Starzl. In 1977, two VA doctors, Dr. Rosalyn Yalow (Bronx VAMC) and Dr. Andrew Schally (New Orleans VAMC) received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in developing radioimmunoassay of peptide hormones. Many modern medical advances originated as trials or experiments in VA hospitals and now benefit patients of all types worldwide.
The VA was elevated to a Cabinet-level Executive Department by President Ronald Reagan in October 1988. The change took effect on March 15, 1989, when the Veterans Administration was renamed the Department of Veterans Affairs, but retained use of “VA” as its acronym.
The Department of Medicine and Surgery was re-designated as the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration and on May 7, 1991, the name was changed to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is the largest of three administrations that comprise the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. VHA’s primary mission is to provide medical care and services to America’s military Veterans.
VHA operates one of the largest health care systems in the world and provides training for a majority of America’s medical, nursing, and allied health professionals. Roughly 60% of all medical residents obtain a portion of their training at VA hospitals and our medical research programs benefit society at-large.
Today’s VHA continues to meet Veterans’ changing medical, surgical, and quality of life needs. New programs provide treatment for traumatic brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, women Veterans, and more.
VA opened outpatient clinics, established telemedicine, and other services to accommodate a diverse Veteran population and cultivates on-going medical research and innovation to improve the lives of America’s patriots.