Civil War veterans built this stunning grotto that is a must for any to-visit list

Garden a sanctuary for nation’s veterans

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

A grotto surrounded by acres of elegantly landscaped gardens was a sanctuary for soldiers and a focal point of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

The home, now known as the Dayton VA Medical Center, opened in the fall of 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, to care for thousands of disabled veterans.

Limestone was quarried from the site, located on Dayton’s west side, to build Home Chapel and other buildings and roads on the campus leaving the grounds scarred with deep pits.

Work began on the grotto in an effort to amend the excavation site according to Tessa Kalman, archives manager and historian for the Dayton VA Medical Center. “I really think that it was in line with the philosophy to create this beautiful home for the veterans to live in,” she said.

Charles Beck, a landscape designer supervised the first crew of 75 Civil War veterans who molded the topography of the gardens in the limestone quarry area and built the caverns within the grotto.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Gardener Frank Mundt began growing vines in the rock crevices in 1868. He took care of growing and caring for native plant species in the grotto as well as cultivating exotic plants in greenhouses on the campus.

When the weather was warm enough the veterans hauled out tropical plants grown in large pots, according to Kalman. Big banana plants, palms and huge agave plants were part of the display.

The grotto was a safe haven for the veterans who had suffered through the devastation of the Civil War. The veterans could escape the heat of summer under the shady trees and dip their ladles into the cool water of natural springs. The quiet surroundings and beautiful plants and flowers were a peaceful tonic.

Tourists traveled by trains, carriages and trolleys to visit the National Home to show their respect for the veterans and visit the exotic haven. The veterans in turn were proud to show off their grotto sanctuary and manicured gardens.

Visitors “descended through a stone archway and strolled by luxuriant foliage and a waterfall,” according to an online VA virtual museum. Pathways wound through the gardens and boat rides were available on the lakes. Over 660,000 visited the home at its peak in 1910, six times the population of Dayton at the time.

Over the decades the site lay dormant, cloaking the springs, stone garden walls and original brick walkways in invasive vegetation.

The Dayton VA partnered in 2012 with the American Veterans Heritage Center and the Ohio State University Extension, Montgomery County Master Gardener volunteers to resurrect the grotto and gardens. The reclaimed site was dedicated in August 2014.

“That’s kind of what’s cool about today,” said Kalman, who noted the public is again visiting the historic area. “For so many years it was left to go wild but now we are going back to our primary purpose to be therapeutic for our veterans.”

About the Author