The Milwaukee Soldiers Home has been a healing place for the nation’s veterans since 1867. The National Historic Landmark is an asset of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and shares an expansive 90-acre site with the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The district includes approximately 40 historic resources; some have been repurposed for the medical center while others stand unused or underutilized. In 2010, a roof collapse in the original domiciliary—Old Main—spurred local, regional, and national stakeholders to collaborate with the VA to address emergency repairs and deferred maintenance that threatened buildings in the historic district.
Though the roof has been fixed and other improvements have ensued, a quarter of the historic buildings remain vacant or barely used. As a federal-owned entity, budget constraints and the VA’s necessary focus on veteran health care prevent building restoration from being a priority.
However, stakeholders, preservation advocates, and the VA are pursuing an opportunity to involve the private sector through the Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) authority, which would allow the VA to lease vacant or available buildings to a nonfederal entity for the purpose of creating housing for veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. Through a long-term lease of up to 75 years, a private developer or lessee would assume all aspects of the building restoration and reuse including financing, construction, maintenance, management, and operation. The EUL program sustains the VA’s mission of veteran care while alleviating the VA of perpetual costs of maintaining unneeded buildings.
In June of 2014, the VA issued a Request for Expressions of Interest (REI) to gauge interest from developers capable of redeveloping the historic buildings for use as supportive housing. At the time, the REI included nine buildings for potential redevelopment. Approximately ten responses were received.
In preparation for an official Request for Proposal (RFP), the VA held a public hearing December 2015 to present the proposed EUL project at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home and to receive public comment. Buildings available for lease through the proposed EUL project were evaluated for their viability as supportive housing. Based on this evaluation and REI responses, six buildings have been identified for redevelopment including Old Main, the administration building, the Catholic chaplain’s quarters, and three duplexes originally used as personnel quarters. The RFP is anticipated this coming spring.
At this time, there are no plans for the Ward Memorial Hall, the chapel, or the power plant, which have been removed from the proposed EUL project.
Formally, the Milwaukee Soldiers Home is known as the Northwestern branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. The National Home system was established in 1865, taking its mission from President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.”
The Milwaukee Soldiers Home, opened in 1867, was one of three homes established to care for civilian soldiers that had suffered debilitating injury or illness during the Civil War. Eight additional homes were constructed in response to subsequent conflicts, employing local architects to design campuses across the country. In 1930, the National Home system was absorbed by the Veterans Administration, and buildings were henceforth designed by the Technical Services Division of the VA.
In Milwaukee, the Soldiers Home retains a high degree of integrity and looks much the same as it did at the turn of the 20th century. Meandering through the historic core, one is removed from the city that encompasses the district and can sense the intended tranquility of the picturesque landscape. The work of celebrated Milwaukee architects Edward Townsend Mix and Henry C. Koch, the architecture is indicative of the region and articulated in the native cream brick.
Old Main was completed in 1869 according to the designs of Townsend Mix. The domiciliary is certainly the showpiece of the district with pointed arches, a polychromatic, slate-tiled mansard roof, and a soaring tower at its center. Through the EUL program, Old Main and the surrounding landscape may once again be a home and place of respite for the nation’s veterans.
For more information on the Milwaukee Soldiers Home, visit savethesoldiershome.com