Photos: Milwaukee Soldiers Home, Circa 2017

Nov 10, 2017

For more than 120 years the Milwaukee Soldiers Home served veterans of conflicts from the Civil War through Vietnam. But for the past 28 years, the original 1867 building, called Old Main, has stood vacant, even as it remained an iconic piece of the skyline west of downtown.

Today, the building is closed to the public, and the few visitors who are allowed inside are required to wear hard hats and are offered respirators to guard against the dust, mold, and peeling paint.

It's clear the elements have taken a toll on the 150-year-old building.  Tile floors crumble as you climb the stairs.  A handful of newspapers litter the floor, dating back to the time when Old Main was a working, occupied building.  

Lake Effect's Mitch Teich had a chance to explore what the space looks like today:

But Old Main is on it way back into service.  Work is expected to begin early next year on a $40 million project to restore the building - and several others on the grounds - to serve veterans of today.

"This is what this building was originally designed for," says Jim Duff, director of the Milwaukee County Veterans' Service Office.  "It was designed for housing for our neediest of veterans after the Civil War."

The facility was placed on the 11 Most Endangered Sites list by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2011.  Since that time, advocates for the building have been working on a strategy to not only save the structures, but to return them to use.

That became possible with the signing of an Enhanced Use Lease between the Department of Veterans Affairs and a development team including the Wisconsin-based Alexander Company, the Milwaukee Housing Authority, and several other groups.  When it's complete - scheduled in 2019 - Old Main and five other buildings will include 101 apartments for homeless and at-risk veterans, with other social services onsite to assist them.

The project will be an intense one, given what developers have to work with.  "Fortunately, this building is built like a tank," says Jonathan Beck, development project manager for the Alexander Company.  But while the structure itself is intact, Beck explains that it takes a coordinated effort to decide what features of the building are worth saving, and what will be eliminated in the project, known as an "adaptive re-use."

"It's a real negotiation," Beck says, "between our architects [Milwaukee firm Uihlein Wilson] and the owners, working with the State Historic Preservation office and the National Park Service to define how we best meet the Department of Interior standards when looking at each of these historic features?"

Credit Mitch Teich

So the slate roof will stay.  Same for the decorative columns in Old Main's grand hall, along with the entryways and grand arches in many of the corridors.  568 unique windows will be renovated, but will remain part of Old Main.  But the building will also get brand-new electrical and mechanical systems and other new features as it becomes a 21st Century residence.

Of the $40 million dollars the project will take to reach completion, around $36 million comes from a variety of public and private sources.  The remaining $4.25 million is being sought through a fundraising campaign, Save the Soldiers HomeMueller Communications CEO H. Carl Mueller is co-chair of the campaign, and he believes the ability to tap into local funding - and donations from people around the world - speaks to the power of the idea of supporting veterans.

"I think it's an exciting opportunity for a relatively small amount of money to leverage all this investment.  And then once we're done with this, people get excited and say, 'What comes next? What else can we do?'."