Inside the unassuming tan building at 841 Santa Fe Drive sits a piece of American history.
It’s the home of VFW Post 1, the first ever Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and the original charter hangs on the wall amongst art mostly made by local veterans. But more on that in a moment.
Then known as the Colorado Society of the Army of the Philippines, VFW Post 1 was founded in December of 1899 and pre-dates the founding of the VFW itself, which came about as veterans organizations from different states began to merge. The Denver post was the first to use the Veterans of Foreign Wars name in 1913 and Pittsburgh followed suit in 1914.
It wasn’t until 100 years after that VFW Post 1 moved to Santa Fe Drive. Prior to that, it was located on the 900 block of Bannock Street in the space that later became Rooster & Moon Coffee Pub. That building is now slated for demolition. The organization got the money to buy the building on Santa Fe after it merged with another post and sold their building at 4400 Pecos St.
So, back to the art: The building sits in the heart of the Art District on Santa Fe and formerly housed artists’ studios. When the VFW moved in, talk naturally turned to art.
“We had some members at the time who were telling us about the benefits of an art therapy — not even a formal art therapy program, but how art and veterans, they go hand in hand sometimes,” said John Keene, commander and executive director of VFW Post 1. “So we decided, ‘Why don’t we provide this space for veterans to display their art?'”
From there, they started the Veterans Art Council, which was recently tasked with selecting art for the Veterans Affairs hospital in Aurora. It meets from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. every second Saturday, and artists can come in to pitch their work for display in the gallery. The council maintains a balance of 80 percent art by veterans and 20 percent art by community members and does not charge the artists.
“One of the goals of the Veterans Art Council is to provide opportunity for the veterans but also to mentor them,” he said. “Sometimes artists will come in with some work and say, ‘Hey, it’s not quite up to par, do you have suggestions?’ And sometimes they come back with improved work and get to hang it in the gallery.”
And though the main goal is to support veterans, the community and their artwork, its also not a bad source of income. Post 1 takes a 10 percent commission from veteran artists and 20 percent commission from civilian artists on sales, which Keene says are “pretty good.”
“Post 1, like a lot of posts, had some rough years in the early 2000s. We had the typical canteen or we did the bingos and the fish fries and things like that you associate with the VFW,” he said. “And that’s just not a sustainable business model, so we had to sell our old building to stay financially viable.”
In its new form, VFW Post 1 has a different slate of activities — even beyond the art gallery and council. There are yoga classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., and on every second Saturday, a group called Healing Warriors is there to provide non-narcotic therapy like healing touch and acupuncture to veterans and their families. They often partner with other veterans organizations, like Team Red, White & Blue to put on programs and reach more veterans.
“Whatever you think of a VFW, that’s not us. We’re doing a lot of different things,” Keene said. “Our approach is that we let our members tell us what they want and, more importantly, the art program was started by members who are artists. We listen to our members and we also give them a pretty long leash. If they have an idea and want to bring it to the post, we’re pretty accommodating.”
For more information on VFW Post 1, including a calendar of events, visit vfwpost1.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article flipped the commission percentages for veterans and civilians.