The deteriorating but historic complex was destined for the wrecking ball until people started caring about it again.
George Banda learned a lot about relying on your brothers in arms during his 11-month tour as a medic in Vietnam. “If somebody gets hurt, you go where they’re laying, and you help,” the 70-year-old Milwaukeean says. “You need to go out there and get them and bring them back.”
Upon returning home, Banda found healing for his mental wounds through communities of other veterans – the only people he’s found who truly understand what he endured. “That’s what helps veterans,” Banda says. “When veterans get together, they help each other.”
Two years ago, Banda, a retired firefighter, was invited to join the community board shaping the future of The Soldiers Home, a historic but long-neglected collection of buildings just outside the Menomonee Valley.
For more than a century, the campus served as a refuge for wounded warriors. As many as 1,000 disabled Civil War vets lived at The Soldiers Home during the late 1800s in disability-specific companies, each with particular duties. The Home’s firefighters, for example, included a contingent of one-armed men.
In the last 40 years, many of its 20-plus buildings have fallen into disuse and disrepair while the nearby Zablocki VA Medical Center has grown. Old Main, the grounds’ 130,000-square-foot centerpiece that long housed the largest portion of the Home’s veterans, has been blocked off since 1989.
But by fall 2020, it is set to reopen as housing for up to 80 vets at risk of homelessness.
“This project is 100 percent veterans-focused,” says Jonathan Beck, the Alexander Co. project manager who’s served on the community advisory board since 2011, around the time a gaping hole appeared in Old Main’s roof.
An announcement is expected this spring on another potential round of redevelopment – including Ward Memorial Theater (where Liberace made some of his first appearances), a dilapidated mansion and chapel.
But this future was not always certain. The VA doesn’t want to devote its limited resources to fixing old buildings; upgrades to existing institutions and services are a higher priority.
About 15 years ago, vets successfully blocked a plan that would’ve razed the whole campus to make way for a hotel. The Home’s destruction, Banda says, would have stood as another silent monument to how forgotten veterans are stateside.
That’s when the upstart Milwaukee Preservation Alliance got involved. With the VA’s blessing, The Soldiers Home quickly became the group’s most significant undertaking, says Dawn McCarthy, interim executive director.
The first step was getting more people to care.
“If you don’t have local buy-in, then it’s just someone from the outside coming in and telling you, ‘This is important,’” McCarthy says.
Websites were created and, in 2011, the whole campus became protected as a National Historic Landmark. Doors Open Milwaukee tours followed, as did brown wayfinding signs along the interstate and a Hank Aaron State Trail checkpoint.
“It all came together, little by little,” Banda says, “and all of a sudden it started to snowball.”
By the numbers
5 of 6 buildings
being refurbished by The Alexander Co. will have space for vets to live with their families.
Community fundraising goal
Veterans nationwide who were homeless in 2018
The year President Abraham Lincoln authorized The Soldiers Home, then called the National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers
Share of Wisconsin’s homeless population who served in the military
of all Wisconsin adults are vets
“Saving The Soldiers Home” appears in the April 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Find it on newsstands beginning April 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.
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