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If These Walls Could Talk
Built in 1881, the Ward Memorial Hall on the Milwaukee Soldier's Home Grounds has been in desperate need of a facelift since 1989. And this spring, it finally gets one.


Photos by Mark Wahl

Light peeks through windows in the Ward Memorial Hall, dimly noting the ornate architectural detail and reflecting off shattered glass on the floor.

Milwaukee VA Medical Center public relations director, Gary Kunich, and project manager, Matthew Cryer, ascend toward the top level of the Ward Memorial Hall auditorium wearing hardhats. The stairs creak below them with each step. Fog dissipates from their breath as they speak. Continuing upstairs, they walk past different generations of seating – some iron, some wooden. Each harkens back to a different time and place in entertainment: vaudeville, silent film, color. The hand-painted walls look grim within the shadows falling under the florescent lighting.

Since 1989, a lack of funding has left this time capsule deteriorating, along with three other post-Civil War structures on the Milwaukee VA Medical Center grounds. But that might change. The VA has recently approved funding for a complete reroof and façade restoration, which will commence this spring. An even bigger change, allowing the VA to lease vacant structures to outside organizations, could follow shortly after. Ward Hall will not be leased out, but the three other buildings could be.

The history of this structure goes back to 1881, when it was built as an addition to the Northwestern Branch National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Historic District (known as the Milwaukee Soldiers Home). Built in 1867, the Northwestern Branch was one of the first three sites of the modern Department of Veterans Affairs. The establishment of National Soldiers Homes was one of the last pieces of legislation signed by President Lincoln before he was assassinated.

The philosophy of creating the Soldiers Home was to create a safe haven “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan,” as President Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address. More than 90,000 Wisconsin soldiers fought for the Union cause in the Civil War; more than 10,000 of them wouldn’t return home. “The grounds were part of the whole healing experience for the men who had just lived through such traumatic war experiences,” says Jim Draeger, the Wisconsin Historical Society state historic preservation officer. The grounds provided social activities for the veterans living there; a library, bowling alley, chapel and the Ward Memorial Hall provided entertainment and retreat. It was a quiet place to rest weary minds. In 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Milwaukee Soldier’s Home to its “11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

This spring, Ward Memorial Hall will undergo a facelift that will replace the roof and repair the brick, external woodwork and the structure’s stone foundation. These updates allow Ward Memorial Hall to be repurposed for another use than it was originally built for, while still keeping its historical charm. Funding for such initiatives in the VA’s National Historic Landmark District comes solely through the Department of Veterans Affairs construction allocations. Funds put forth will not take away from those allotted to veteran health care. “These allocations are separate from those that finance the health care and services that veterans and I receive at the Zablocki VA Medical Center,” says Cryer, an Army Captain who just recently returned from Afghanistan. “Making sure our veterans get the health care they have earned and deserve is and will remain our highest priority.”

In 2014, the organization will spend 0.78 percent of its $152.7 billion budget (about $11 million) on construction and repairs and 38 percent (about $580 million) for medical programs. “The VA's mission is first and foremost veteran health care,” says Genell Scheurell, senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “In the past, the VA was unsure how restoring these buildings could directly serve that mission.”

The VA is making strides on these projects. In 2012, $3.75 million was spent restoring Ward Memorial Hall and Old Main buildings. Three more buildings in the VA’s historic district will undergo façade projects this spring and summer, including a 120,150-square-foot building that will also be reroofed.

All federal undertakings inside the Milwaukee VA Medical Center National Historic Landmark District are reviewed by the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office, National Park Service and the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation in keeping with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. “We are trying to find plans to reuse these buildings that are complimentary to what the VA is doing and help find funding to help them adaptively reuse them for the needs they have,” Draeger says. “That’s where the partnership comes in. The group listens and works together to try to craft a win-win situation where the buildings get rehabbed and it doesn’t scrap the VA with the cost.”

A group of concerned citizens formed a Community Advisory Council in 2011, and along with the state historic preservation officer, they have been soliciting the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, to issue guidance for the VA’s use of Section 111 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 111 would allow the VA to repurpose the vacant historical buildings for different uses and also allow them to lease the buildings to organizations outside of the VA. “We do not wish to preserve these buildings as mere relics,” says Cryer. “We are returning them to service the contemporary needs of the veterans we serve.”

The Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, Kansas was granted Section 111 authorization in 2005, and 38 historic buildings are now in the process of being renovated. The enhanced-use lease program allowed outside developers to sign a 75-year-long lease and accept responsibility of restoring and repurposing the buildings for a variety of uses, including veterans’ housing, small businesses and classrooms. 

If Section 111 is granted, hopes are to lease the buildings back to veteran organizations. “It could be beneficial if it could work out,” says Tracey Sperko, executive director at Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative. “Organizations would go there for the love of the space.”

Putting these buildings back to veterans’ use is priority in these renovation efforts. “There is nothing more we’d like to see than for these buildings to be used to serve veterans again,” says Megan Daniels, program manager for the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and member of the Community Advisory Council.

If the Department of Veterans Affairs issues guidance for Section 111 to the Milwaukee VA, that’s where the art of preservation comes in. “People have a misconception we are trying to turn everything into a museum,” Draeger says. The main goal is to keep the building’s character and still allow for adaptive reuse. “It involves creative thinking to make these things happen.”

That theory applies to buildings the VA itself will conserve. The Milwaukee VA Medical Center is working with historical architects to find a repurpose for Ward Memorial Hall without diminishing the historically significant features. With renovation efforts in motion, the building’s new purpose has still yet to be decided. “I like some of the ideas I’ve heard for the Ward Theater,” says Gary Kunich, Milwaukee VA Medical Center public relations director. “It meshes the state-of-the-art while maintaining the history.” Some ideas have been a patient care facility, office space or some sort of auditorium. “The conclusion will come down to how can this building best be used for veterans?” Kunich says.




2 Comments
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MKE_Biker_Vet Posted: 3/18/2014 11:49:14 AM
 1   0    

It will be great to see those buildings providing veteran health care and service again. The founders of the Soldier's Home would be proud to see the high quality care my fellow veterans receive at the Milwaukee VA and their fact that their vision is alive 160 years later. As a third generation veteran and recipient of VA Healthcare it's remarkable to see the great work going on there. My family and my vet chapter hope to see a follow up story about the work being done to those buildings. To us they represent the moment in history when our society came to recognize the plight of veterans. Keep up the hard work Ms. Robinson.
LisaJW Posted: 3/14/2014 6:13:33 PM
 0   4    

With all the history inside the hall, I hope the VA will be able to keep the building for the use of the performing arts for the benefit of veterans and their families. Just seeing a few photos from the inside really caused my imagination to run off with ideas of theatrical, ballet, dance or musical entertainment. Thanks for a great read Aimee!
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