Our History - Canandaigua VA Medical Center
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Canandaigua VA Medical Center


Our History

Brief History of the Canandaigua VA Medical Center

In 1929 the federal government solicited cities and towns in Western New York to vie for a Veterans Hospital.   Canandaigua, which means the Chosen Spot in Iroquois, was selected by the Federal Board of Hospitalization as the site for a Veterans Administration Hospital to help rehabilitate Veterans diagnosed with a mental health illness.

The estate of Sonnenberg, located in Canandaigua, New York, was purchased by the U.S. Government in 1931 from Emory Clark, the nephew of the benefactress, Mrs. Frederick Ferris Thompson for $101,000.    The estate comprised 118 acres and was really worth about $2,000,000. The property consisted of twenty-six buildings dating back to 1887 included the Sonnenberg Mansion, caretaker Quarters, summer house, aviary, swimming pool and heating plant, Japanese tea house, deer barn, cannery, storage houses, garages, pergolas, gazebo and greenhouses that comprised approximately 116,000 square feet.

On June 21, 1931, ground was broken for the new VA hospital.  Another 346 adjoining acres were acquired from various properties in 1931, and 16 additional acres were purchased in 1944.

The original buildings included the administration building 1, the dining room and kitchen building 2, the ward buildings 3 and 4, the recreation building 5, laundry, warehouse, central heating plant, attendants quarters, sewage pump house, garage, and gatehouse all done in the Tudor style and constructed of concrete and brick masonry. The labor for these original buildings was all done manually.

Bacon Farm which comprised 301 acres of land was the largest parcel of land acquired. It was managed as a farm by the hospital. Much of the meat and produce consumed at the hospital was raised on this acreage. A herd of 500 swine was maintained with a slaughtering schedule of 3,000 pounds per week. The farm work was accomplished by the patient population as part of a rehabilitation program, necessary in those days when there was virtually no specific treatment for mental illness. The farm land was also used for apple orchards and berry patches and growing wheat, barley, oats, and corn. The hospital continued to manage a farm until 1952.

The hospital officially opened on February 6, 1933 with the arrival by train of 202 patients from Northport, New York and 22 from Lyons, New Jersey. The hospital opened to the public on Hospital Day, May 12th, to about 4,000 visitors. The bed capacity at this time was 468 with occupancy of 275.

In 1936, using Public Works funding construction began on buildings 6, 7, 8 and 9. The hospital did not reach its present size until 1944 after construction of buildings 33, 34, 36 and 37. The bed capacity also increased to 1,637. At the end of World War II the hospital was being used to its full capacity.

Psychiatric treatment continued to evolve over the years. Eventually the development of medication used to treat mental illness made it possible for many patients to rejoin the community and live productive lives. Medication allowed patients to have increased freedom and be responsible for their own care and rehabilitation. The Foster Home program was implemented enabling patients who had no home or family to also be placed back into the community. This helped to decrease long hospital stays. The 1970’s and 1980’s mental health rehabilitation began to use a multi-disciplinary approach to care. This further decreased the inpatient population of the hospital with more patients being seen on an outpatient basis.

The 1990’s was a period in which VA Canandaigua’s health care delivery system continued to be redefined. The Veterans health care system began to transform itself from a confederation of individual medical centers and clinics focused primarily on inpatient care to a fully integrated system of health care delivery.  In 1995 the Veterans Health Administration reorganized into 22 Veteran Integrated Service Networks that provided a structural and organizational foundation for integrating services, improving access to care and increasing the quality thereof. The Canandaigua VA became a member of VISN 2 – VA Health Care Upstate New York, which includes VA medical centers in Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Batavia and Bath. VA health care moved from an inpatient model of care to an outpatient model adding conveniently located Community Based Outpatient Clinics and satellite clinics to provide better access to Veterans. Through this redesigned structure for the delivery of care, the total authorized beds at the Canandaigua VA fell from 750 in 1990 to the present inpatient census of 200. 

In 1997 the Rochester VA Outpatient Clinic (ROPC) became affiliated with the Canandaigua VA Medical Center as part of this reorganization.  Currently the Rochester VA Outpatient Clinic features primary care services for Veterans in the Rochester area.  The ROPC Behavioral Health programs offer individual and group counseling to veterans, as well as wellness workshops on a variety of topics.  Board certified physicians for primary, urgent, and specialty care, make referrals to the Canandaigua.

The “Burr Oak” tree located in front of Building 1 is of historic significance.  It is estimated to be 265 years old and is a designated “Bicentennial Tree”.  It stands 90 feet high and has a circumference of 18 feet 5 ½ inches measured 4 ½ feet from the ground. The crown diameter is 100 feet.  Measurement was taken by the New York State Forestry Service, and a denotative plaque placed on the tree.

A Brief History of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)

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 military forces.

National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (1865-1930)

Birds-eye-view of the Togus, Maine National Home campus

Eastern Branch National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Togus, Maine, 1891.

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 to provide civilian medical care to Veterans of temporary volunteer forces.

Two earlier soldiers’ homes, operated by the U.S. Army and Navy for Veterans of the Regular military forces, were very small and housed only up to 300 men each. The National Homes housed ten of thousands of Veterans. The National Homes were often called “soldiers’ homes” or “military homes.” Initially only Civil War soldiers and sailors who served honorably with the Union forces—including U.S. Colored Troops—were eligible for admittance. The first National Home, now VA’s oldest hospital, opened near Augusta, Maine, on November 1, 1866. They provided medical care and long-term housing for thousands of Civil War Veterans.

View of the seal for The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers dated March 3, 1865

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 original National Homes have operated continuously since they opened.

View of the front facade of the hospital at the National Military Home in Dayton, Ohio

Hospital, Central Branch, National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, Dayton, Ohio, 1912.

Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Public Health Service, & Federal Board of Vocational Education (1917-1922)

For nearly five years three separate federal programs, two of which were under the Treasury Department, provided benefits exclusively to World War I Veterans. In 1921, the Bureau of War Risk Insurance, Public Health Service Veterans’ hospitals, and Rehabilitation Division of the Federal Board of Vocational Education were consolidated to form one agency.

Veterans Bureau (1921-1930)

View of the seal of the Veterans Bureau dated 1921

On August 9, 1921, Congress created the Veterans Bureau by combining three World War I Veterans programs into one bureau. The Veterans Bureau and National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers worked cooperatively to provide medical care to all Veterans at this time.

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 who served in World War I were authorized, for the first time in history, to apply for American citizenship due to a law enacted on November 6, 1919, making them eligible for full Veterans benefits, including health care. The first segregated federal Veterans hospital opened under the Veterans Bureau on February 12, 1923, in Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1924, Veterans’ benefits were liberalized for the second time in history to cover disabilities that were not service-related. In 1928, admission to Veterans Bureau hospitals and National Homes was fully extended to women, National Guard, and militia Veterans.

Veterans Administration (1930-1989)

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.

View of the seal of the Veterans Administration dated 1930

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, but many were later shelved, when VA’s budget was cut to help fund U.S. Cold War programs. During the 1950s VA’s cooperative research studies led to discoveries about cancer, diabetes, chemotherapy, nuclear medicine, and helped to diminish the spread of tuberculosis.

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. Dr. Ferid Murad (Palo Alto VAMC) received a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system. Many modern medical advances originated as trials or experiments in VA hospitals and now benefit patients of all types worldwide.

Department of Veterans Affairs (since 1989)

The VA was elevated to a Cabinet-level Executive Department by President Ronald Reagan in October 1988. The change took full effect on March 15, 1989, when the Veterans Administration was renamed as the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA’s first Secretary after the elevation, Ed Derwinski, insisted that the “VA” acronym be retained since it have been a familiar part of American culture for more than 50 years

VA’s Department of Medicine and Surgery was re-designated as the Veterans Health Services and Research Administration, as part of the elevation, and on May 7, 1991, was renamed as 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.

Department of Veterans Affairs seal

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 has roots spanning over 150 years and 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.

In recent years VHA has opened more outpatient clinics, established telemedicine, vet centers, and suicide prevention hotlines, and developed other services to accommodate a diverse and ever-changing Veteran population. VHA continually evolves and cultivates on-going cutting-edge medical research and innovation to improve the lives of America’s patriots.