Architect Larry Sillman might be easing into retirement, but he leaves his footprints and blueprints all over the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) Veterans Homes of California (VHC) system.
The 75-year-old Vietnam veteran from Chula Vista designed four of the eight homes operated by CalVet. He also played a role in the creation of three others. In fact, the only one he didn’t work on, VHC-Yountville, was built in 1884. Clearly, that one came a bit before his time. Even then, he has been involved in creating the concept that will guide the design of the new skilled nursing facility being planned for the 136-year-old Home.
In designing each Home, Sillman blended his understanding of a veteran’s needs with the thought of what his own future might hold.
“I thought to myself, I could probably live in one of those places myself someday,” he said. “I looked at it as, where would I want to live? It’s about the quality of life.”
At a time when most retirement homes resembled hospital settings, Sillman designed CalVet’s facilities in Barstow, Chula Vista, Redding, and Fresno to feel more like communities, while also reflecting their regional surroundings. As an example, he designed VHC-Fresno to feature wood, stone, and plenty of natural light, just as visitors to Yosemite National Park will find at the Ahwahnee Hotel and other lodges.
The last three Homes built by CalVet – Ventura, West Los Angeles, and Lancaster – were designed by a different architect but feature the same “neighborhood pod” concept as the four he created.
“Larry’s role in the expansion of our system has been crucial to our success,” said CalVet Secretary Vito Imbasciani MD. “He didn’t just design veterans homes. He designed communities within the homes that are secure, homelike, and respectful; and where our residents can have the kind of camaraderie they experienced when they served in our military.”
“Most skilled nursing facilities and residential facilities have long corridors, and that was it,” Sillman said. “It was a long way to the dining room.”
A client who owned private nursing facilities complained that too much of the nurses’ time was spent pushing wheelchairs or helping the residents with walkers to get from their rooms down seemingly endless corridors to the dining halls; and they did that three times a day.
Sillman designed buildings that enabled the veteran residents to come out of their rooms and into open areas that have sofas, tables, and televisions. In essence, these spaces encourage veterans to relax, visit, and even eat their meals in a living room-like setting.
“Larry’s work has helped us make our Veterans Homes of California become real homes to our deserving veterans,” said David Gerard, CalVet’s assistant deputy secretary of Facilities and Business Services. “He changed the way the Veterans Homes were built, and in the process changed the way our veterans live by improving their quality of life.”
Sillman was born in Chula Vista, where his father worked in the wartime aircraft industry. In the 1950s the family moved to Modesto, where Sillman attended Downey High School and was a classmate of George Lucas, who went on to “American Graffiti,” “Star Wars,” and “Indiana Jones” fame.
Sillman went on to study architecture at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. He entered the Army in 1967, thinking his design skills would land him a duty not so close to the action.
“I thought I’d get something related,” he said. Instead, he was assigned to the 25th Infantry, 65th Engineer Combat Engineer Battalion, running heavy equipment at Cu Chi, where the Viet Cong tunneled their way under the base to create mayhem in the evenings.
“One night, they destroyed four Chinook helicopters, and you know what those cost,” Sillman said. “They got back out through the wire (fences) before anyone could get them,” escaping into the cover of the foliage surrounding the base.
The commander ordered Sillman to use the heavy equipment to level everything around the base, eliminating the Viet Cong’s hiding places.
“It was Lt. Sillman versus the V.C.,” Sillman said. “They didn’t bother me during the day, but at night they laid land mines and booby traps. I never took the same way every day. Even so, I hit lots of them. Thankfully, nobody died.”
Sillman returned to the states and to Cal Poly in 1969, where he earned degrees in architecture and structural engineering. He opened his own firm in 1973.
Two decades later, and having amassed plenty of experienced designing private senior care facilities, he designed VHC-Barstow and got the contract because of his new concept for veterans homes. Long corridors disappeared and were replaced by social areas. VHC-Barstow opened in 1996, followed by VHC-Chula Vista in 2000, and VHC-Fresno and VHC-Redding both in 2013.
The concept works. The Veterans Homes of California are truly homes. He can point to his creations with pride: His footprints and blueprints are all over the Homes.
And as Sillman heads off into retirement, CalVet would like to thank him for all the work he has done to improve the lives of the residents of our Veterans Homes.