‘Extraordinary’: Dignitaries Celebrate Completion of Historic Restoration of Soldiers Home

“It is virtually impossible to overstate how amazing Soldiers Home is,” WHEDA official says of new housing for dozens of at-risk veterans.

The formal dedication of six buildings on the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus on Thursday served as a monumental milestone marking the completion of a complex, decade-long preservation and rehabilitation project.

“This incredible preservation success demonstrates the benefits of historic restoration and what can be achieved through a successful public-private partnership,” said Joe Alexander, president of developer The Alexander Co. “It serves as proof that strategic partnerships, visionary leadership and creative funding cannot just save buildings, but tackle homelessness, ignite a community and serve as a national model.”

Established in 1867 following the Civil War, the property on the grounds of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center is one of three original Soldiers Homes in the country, with some of the oldest and most historic buildings in the Veterans Affairs system. It is one of only 43 National Historic Landmarks in Wisconsin.

The most prominent and recognizable building on The Soldiers Home campus, Old Main has been renovated into 80 one- and two-bedroom apartment units for veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless; Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography

“It is wonderful to see these buildings so loving restored and returned to their original mission,” Milwaukee VA Deputy Director Jim McLain said.

The Alexander Co., based in Madison, and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee partnered on the historic preservation and adaptive reuse project.

“I honestly cannot think of a more extraordinary and meaningful historic preservation project in this community in the last generation,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. “It is fitting that we not only have an incredible historic preservation project here, but we have a living tribute to veterans. Providing decent housing and wrap-around care for veterans is something all of us are committed to.”

 

 

The six restored buildings offer 101 permanent housing units for veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Veteran residents receive access to a range of supportive services, including case management, educational training and employment assistance, benefits assistance, recreational activities, independent living skills training, sobriety maintenance and nutritional support.

About 90% of the Soldiers Home housing units have been leased, said Eduardo Garza Jr., president of the Center for Veterans Issues. Qualified veterans pay rent that amounts to about 30% of their annual income.

“There is a sense of disbelief that this is a reality for veterans and their families to be living in such a beautiful place,” Garza said. “Today, this is a place for them to call home.”

Buildings on the Soldiers Home campus fell into disrepair after being vacated more than 30 years ago.

Old Main’s original pool table was restored, re-felted, and returned to the Club Room for continued veteran enjoyment; Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography

Many of the buildings’ features have been restored and decorated with a mix of modern and historic design elements. Restored architecture includes Old Main’s signature gothic windows and historic grand entrance alongside refinished wood and terrazzo floors and decorative tin ceiling tiles. In addition, crucial updates to the buildings’ infrastructure have been made.

“Over the years there have been naysayers that said this could never be done,” Barrett said.

The fourth floor tower lounge within Old Main now serves as a gathering space with stunning American Family Field and skyline views through the preserved, iconic gothic windows; Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography

More than 175 pieces of artwork will be on display in the buildings, all curated by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Artwork and artifacts also will be featured in the History Center to honor and celebrate stories from the original veteran residents.

The $44 million project began in 2011 when the Milwaukee Soldiers Home was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of Most Endangered Historic Places. Funding sources include affordable housing tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), federal and state historic tax credits, grants and fundraising.

A one-bedroom unit of housing found in Old Main; Photo by Ryan Hainey Photography

WHEDA made a $30 million investment in the project.

“It is virtually impossible to overstate how amazing Soldiers Home is,” WHEDA Assistant Deputy Director May yer Thao said. “We have a never-ending obligation to help our outstanding veterans who have served with honor and courage.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.