The Grotto Gardens at the Dayton VA Medical Center
Tour the Grotto Gardens
During the late 1880s and early 1900s, the Grotto Gardens were a major attraction at the Central Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Often referred to as the “Dayton Soldiers’ Home”, the facility was built as a refuge and home for disabled soldiers of the American Civil War, and at its peak, sheltered over 7,000 Veterans. The Grotto area and lakes were formed from the quarrying of limestone as building material for some of the Home’s initial structures (such as the Protestant Chapel), walkways and roads.
The Grotto’s water flows from natural underground springs, but the surrounding landscaping, rock walls and nearby lakes are all man-made. Seventy-five full-time Veteran gardeners planted and cared for magnificent gardens in the Grotto and adjacent areas, and it became a destination point for hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Some came by train and often stayed at a hotel located on the grounds just north of the Grotto.
As the Veteran population at the Home declined during the mid-1900s, the Grotto Gardens fell into disrepair as the site became overgrown and mostly lost from view. Restoration began in 2012, and the next year, the OSU Extension Montgomery County Master Gardeners joined in a combined effort with Dayton VA Medical Center and AVHC to begin the restoration and maintenance of the historic VA Grotto Gardens.
Local garden centers, garden clubs, and donors have been generous in their support of this endeavor. Gardens have been planted and a tree dedication program has been initiated to honor various individuals for their service to our country.
1. Frank Mundt Memorial Garden
In 1868, Frank Mundt, a resident veteran, and florist by trade, began planting vines in the rock walls and native flowers that he collected from nearby farms into this former quarry. Through his efforts, he inspired others to develop the Grotto and Gardens into a destination attraction for as many as 100,000 visitors a year. The patriotic theme of this garden is intended to attract attention and to inspire individuals to explore, visit and enjoy the newly restored gardens.
2. Major Charles Beck Memorial Perennial Garden
Major Charles Beck oversaw the gardens from 1875 to 1906, and was the gardener/landscaper who oversaw the development of the gardens into a major tourist attraction. This is the first garden that was developed in the Grotto restoration and was established by the 2013 OSU Montgomery County Master Gardener Intern Class. When prepping the area for planting an original brick walkway was uncovered. This walkway was built by the Civil War residents (veterans) during the late 1800’s.
3. Dr. Clarke McDermont Perennial Bed
The Dr. Clarke McDermont Perennial bed is named in honor of the first surgeon of the Dayton National Soldier’s Home. He served continuously at the Central Home from 1867 until August 1874; with the exception of fourteen months spent as Surgeon at the Southern Home at Hampton, VA. Dr. Clarke was born in Ireland in 1823, received his medical and surgical education in the USA and was one of the first to enlist when President Lincoln called for troops at the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion. He left behind a wife, a child and his practice to follow his regiment to Washington and was present for the first Battle of Bull Run. When General Cox was elected governor of Ohio, he appointed Dr. McDermont surgeon-general of the state, an office that ended at the conclusion of the war. He died in 1881 and is buried at Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, OH.
4. Joseph Guy LaPointe, Jr. Purple Heart Garden
This garden honors Joseph Guy LaPointe, Jr. along with the veterans who have received the Purple Heart medal. As a conscientious objector and a medic, Specialist LaPointe’s unit came under fire in Vietnam; he was killed shielding two wounded soldiers with his body as he tried to bring them to safety. For his extraordinary bravery, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart Medal. The Purple Heart Medal is the oldest military award, established by George Washington in 1782. It was not awarded for 150 years and was reintroduced on February 22, 1932, on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. The medal is inscribed, “For Military Merit” and is awarded to those “wounded in as a result of hostile enemy action.”
5. Elizabeth Rohrer Memorial Butterfly Garden
Elizabeth Rohrer of Germantown became interested in the original gardens at the Grotto and contributed large numbers of plants from her own gardens. The base of this garden is the old aviary. A dry rock stream was added to bring a focus to the outcropping on which the garden sits. One of the original Grotto fountains was brought in as a focal point of the Butterfly Garden. This garden is designed with pollinators in mind using mostly native plants and illustrates what can be done with full sun and dry conditions.
6. James B. McPherson Garden
James Birdseye McPherson, born near Clyde, Ohio, was a career United States Army officer. He served as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was killed at the Battle of Atlanta, facing the army of his old West Point classmate, John Bell Hood. He was the 2nd highest ranking Union officer killed in the war. At the height of the Grotto Gardens (19875-1906), a boat floated on the pond named McPherson.
7. Delphine Baker Access Ramp
During the Civil War, the female philanthropist Delphine Baker pushed for the creation and support of a federally run asylum for disabled Union veterans. Eventually, Baker moved to New York City and established the National Literary Association, incorporated in May 1864. The association’s goal was to establish a national home for disabled and sailors through the publication and sale of the National Banner, which also promoted literature, science and the arts. Baker worked diligently to collect signatures of prominent people (The list included: William C. Bryant, Henry Longfellow, Horace Greeley, Clara Barton, Ulysses S. Grant and P.T. Barnum.) for a petition supporting her cause. On December 8, 1984, a petition asking for “the passage of a bill appropriating money for the founding and support of a national home for totally disabled soldiers and sailors of the army and navy of the United States,” was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia. More than one hundred people had signed the petition. On March 1, 1865, Senator Henry Wilson, chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia, introduced what he called “a little bill to which there can be no objection.” Wilson’s bill to “incorporate a National and Military and Naval Asylum for the relief of totally disabled officers and men of the volunteer forces of the United States,” passed on March 3, with no debate. This ramp was funded through a grant from Home Depot.
8. Lt. William Putnam Memorial Garden
The second story of the Headquarters building of the Central Branch comprised the library and reading room. The room was a spacious 19’ high with handsomely frescoed ceiling. Cone reflectors shed brilliant rays for illumination at night. One hundred and fifty chromos, engravings and photographs adorned the library wall. The room contained the renowned “Putnam Library.” Mary Putnam contributed over 10,000 books as a memorial to her son, William Lowell Putnam, who fell in 1861 at the battle of Balls Bluff. The veterans in the Home constructed the massive bookcases of black and white walnut for the library. This became the largest library in Ohio and occupied the 2nd and 3rd floors of for serving our nation and pays tribute to their service as their last full measure of devotion to protect each of us.
9. Chaplain William Earnshaw Rock Garden
This rock garden is named for Chaplain William Earnshaw who originally mustered into the 49th Pennsylvania Infantry. In September 1867 he was elected chaplain of the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton, Ohio. It was under his direction that the Civil War soldiers helped quarry the stone from the rugged eastern edge of the grounds to build a chapel. The cornerstone was laid on November 21, 1868, and the building was dedicated in 1870, making it one of the oldest church buildings in this area. It was the first chapel built for veterans and is now the oldest in government service. Chaplain Earnshaw served as the official librarian of the post; had an important part in one of the earliest examples of veteran rehabilitation; and helped in organizing the school by being one of its original teachers. He died at the age of 54 due to illness and is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio. The center of the rock garden is the phrase “Last Full Measure. This phrase appears in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: …that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. The chosen phrase is to highlight all our veterans for serving our nation and pays tribute to their services as their last full measure of devotion to protect each of us.
10. Charles Harper Garden
Charles Harper was a long-time employee and groundskeeper at the VA Center in the 1980’s. Under his direction, the VA grounds crew did major restoration on the Grotto in the early 1980’s, by shoring up much of the rockwork, clearing weeds and planting flowers. However, due to the funding and personnel challenges of that era, it became difficult to maintain the Grotto in a consistent manner in later years. This garden is dedicated to Charles for his initial efforts in restoring the Grotto to its former glory.
Since many visitors use the parking lot, this garden is the first one they encounter when entering from there. The garden offers color, texture and scents to welcome visitors to the Grotto Gardens.
11. Lewis B. Gunckel Memorial Fountain
The fountain is a replica of the fountain that can be seen in the original Grotto gardens and was dedicated in honor of Lewis B. Gunckel’s efforts to bring the National Home to Dayton. The Board of Managers wanted to place the National Home branch in the lower Midwest 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. Through the efforts of the board’s secretary, Lewis B. Gunckel, a Dayton native, the board was convinced to locate the new Home in Dayton, Ohio and construction immediately. The first Civil War veterans began arriving in the fall of 1867.
12. C.B. Davis Memorial Boulder Garden
C.B. Davis was the architect appointed to lay out the garden walks, promenades and flower beds. 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. As early as the mid-1870’s approximately 100,000 people were visiting the Central Branch annually.
13. Emma Miller Memorial Tranquility Garden
Emma Miller was known as the “little Mother of the Soldiers.” She began caring for soldiers of the Civil War and when the Soldiers Home opened in 1867 she was transferred here. She was to remain working here for almost 50 years. For many years she was the superintendent of the General Depot of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. When she died in 1914, her body was wrapped in an American flag and lay in state in the Protestant Chapel of the Home. Following the service at the church, the body was escorted to the Home cemetery and laid to rest in a grave selected on the officer’s lot. The burial was accompanied with scenes of military pomp such as has honored few women in this country, and only the women of royalty in other countries. The firing of the last salute over the grave by the firing squad and the sounding of taps on the bugle were part of the ceremony. The military character of the funeral lent a special significance to the occasion.
14. Chaplain Thomas B. Van Horne Memorial Wet Gardens
Thomas Budd Van Horne, a veteran, and chaplain designed the Central Branch (Dayton facility). 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. The 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. The natural feel of the gardens and parks provided the veterans with an enjoyable place to spend their time since they could not return to work.
This garden is a micro-climate garden, meaning its soil and growing conditions are different than other areas in the Grotto. The natural underground springs seep water constantly through the limestone rock wall that is the backdrop of the garden and causes a bog-like environment. This is the perfect condition for the magnificent Bald Cypress tree and it’s “knees” that grace the area.
15. Col. Edwin F. Brown Memorial Waterfall & Grotto Gardens
Dedicated to Col. Edwin Brown who was appointed Governor of the Central Branch in 1868. Col. Brown believed in giving employment to the soldiers and paying them for it. In 1879, he was made Inspector General of all National homes.
16. WWII Memorial Overlook Garden
Dedicated to all veterans who served in WWII. The site provides a relatively unobstructed view of the Grotto landscape.
Architectural Features at the Grotto Gardens
The twin towers are the centerpiece of the Grotto landscape at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, a National Historic Landmark in Dayton, Ohio. Congress established the system of National Asylums for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and legislation was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1865. The Central Branch, also known as the National Soldiers Home, opened in Dayton in 1867. View all the images of the Tower HERE.
The Grottos & Natural Springs
The three Grottos at the Gardens are an interesting feature that includes man-made architectural “grottos” built around natural springs. There are two natural springs in the Gardens that flow freely from the hillside adjacent to the Towers, and from the wall framing the Thomas B. Van Horn Memorial Natural Springs Garden. Although there is not much recorded history about the Grottos themselves, one can assume that the 19th century practice of utilizing the minerals from natural springs for their healing properties was in part a reason for these gardens at the original Soldier’s Home. View all the images of the Grottos and Natural Springs HERE.
The Ponds and Fountain
Originally, the “lakes” kept a miniature version of the man-of -war ship the Garfield anchored there, and a central fountain was at the center of the large pond. There was also an aviary, a deer park, and alligators in one of the adjacent ponds!
Fountains similar to those from the past have been installed in both the upper and lower ponds. Landscape lighting has been used to enhance key features of the Grotto. Check it out after the sun sets – it is a sight to behold.
4100 W. Third St.
Dayton, OH 45428
P.O. Box 1366
Fairborn, OH 45324
Hours of operation
Monday through Friday
9AM to 3PM
or by appointment
Office: (937) 267-7628