Nestled in the heart of downtown Paris lies a boutique hotel that carries the name of World War I Gen. John J. Pershing. The 138-year old, five-story building, known as Pershing Hall, has an unsavory history of illegal gambling, money laundering, and prostitution.
And it’s owned by the VA.
In 1928, the American Legion purchased the building to celebrate Pershing and his troops. The now-luxury hotel was acquired by the US government in 1938 when the Legion agreed to oversee the property, but by 1982 it had enough.
The VA took control of 49 Rue Pierre Charron after Congress transferred authority in 1991. Almost immediately, they began looking for ways to sell it.
In 1998, the VA signed a 99-year-lease with a French firm so the business could transform the barren building into a fancy boutique hotel just blocks from the Seine.
But now, there is a renewed effort to get the darling property, which once housed nefarious activities, off the VA’s books once and for all.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo), a Marine Corps veteran, introduced a bill in June that would authorize the VA to sell Pershing Hall “for fair market value,” on the condition that whoever buys it preserves the interior and exterior architectural integrity.
On Thursday, at a House Veterans’ Affairs committee hearing, Coffman said: “we can all agree that the VA’s sole mission is to provide services to our nation’s veterans.”
“The maintenance of a 5-star, 24 room boutique hotel and restaurant and club in downtown Paris, France is clearly not included in that description.”
If sold, the proceeds would be given to the American Battle Monuments Commission, but as Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH) pointed out “if the VA sold this property today, we would receive only a small fraction of the $80 million appraised value,” adding that she would support the measure if its sale was conditioned on the appraised, not market, value.
But not everyone is on board with selling it.
Louis Celli, a director of the American Legion, told lawmakers that the property was extremely personal to the organization. The American Legion was born in 1919 in Paris when American service members fought in World War I.
The organization had hoped the structure would be preserved as a memorial to Pershing and his forces, but when the VA signed a 99-year lease it became a luxury hotel.
“We are displeased as to how VA decided to use the building but also understand that America, its people, and the need for memorials and VA assistance will be around in 99 years once the lease is terminated,” said Celli.
“Selling this in a fire sale is the wrong thing to do.”
Democrats and Republicans are supportive of Coffman’s initiative, but Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, said he needed to think more about the measure.