Discover / Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home
Save a National Treasure
REGION: Midwest
LOCATION:
Milwaukee, WI
TYPE: Building
The Milwaukee Soldiers Home was built in 1867. | Photo: Milwaukee Preservation Alliance
The Milwaukee Soldiers Home was built in 1867. | Photo: Milwaukee Preservation Alliance
Opportunity
Save and reuse vacant buildings at the historic Soldiers Home to meet the needs of today’s veterans.

Overview

Since 1867, the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home campus has provided care to veterans throughout the region. Though many of the Soldiers Home buildings remain in use, three of the largest and most visible – Old Main, Ward Memorial Hall, and Home Chapel – are currently unoccupied with roofs in danger of collapse. The buildings could be lost unless they are restored to support veterans’ needs.

A community advisory council has formed to help save the Milwaukee Soldiers Home. This group includes members from the veteran, preservation, and historical communities, as well as representatives of neighborhoods, associations, and organizations. The council has created a consensus report that describes the most critical veteran needs and how vacant Soldiers Home buildings could be used to meet those needs. The report is being shared with Veterans Administration personnel in charge of the site.

National Significance

The Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark District is one of three remaining original Soldiers Homes in the country. It is an outstanding representation of the development of a national system of medical and residential benefits for disabled veterans. The homes were designed as places of refuge and recuperation for physically and mentally disabled soldiers who had survived the Civil War.

The Milwaukee Soldiers Home contains some of the oldest buildings in the VA system, and the majority of its recuperative village and designed landscape is still intact. Old Main is the only original Soldiers Home building in the country designed to combine multiple basic veteran care functions under one roof. The Milwaukee Soldiers Home is beloved by veterans who believe its recuperative powers should remain accessible to aging Vietnam vets and returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Campaign Goals

  • Create and fund a plan that will identify how to best reuse the vacant Soldiers Home buildings and how much it will cost to restore them.
  • Find interested parties who can restore the buildings to provide services and treatment for veterans.

Ways To Help

Endorse the report supporting the reuse of the Soldiers Home.

Donate to support our advocacy work at the Soldiers Home.

Tell us why the Soldiers Home matters to you.

Posted on October 22, 2014

Posted by Genell Scheurell, Project Manager

Milwaukee Magazine ImageThere are many reasons to love Milwaukee. From local breweries, festivals and nightlife to major league sports – Milwaukee has it all. But in addition to these well-known Milwaukee staples, there are a few unique and arguably one-of-a-kind reasons to love Milwaukee, one of which is the Milwaukee Soldiers Home (Soldiers Home). 

Hidden on the grounds of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, the Soldiers Home is one of Wisconsin’s most notable historical assets and one that the Trust, in partnership with the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, has been working hard to save.

Recently, Milwaukee Magazine named the Soldiers Home one of its “Reasons to Love Milwaukee.” I have to say, I agree.

According to the article:

Tucked away behind Miller Park is one of three remaining (original) Soldiers Homes in the country. Built in 1867, it’s one of the first locations of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The philosophy behind creating the Soldiers Home was to have a safe haven “for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan,” according to President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address. Restoration efforts at the site are ongoing, and the Milwaukee VA hopes to soon renovate nine historic buildings for homeless veteran housing.

Milwaukee is often known for its tradition of brewing and manufacturing, but its history goes far deeper than that. The Milwaukee Soldiers Home is an important part of our nation’s history. Our hope is that more and more people will agree with Milwaukee Magazine and discover for themselves that the Soldiers Home is one of the great reasons to love Milwaukee.

To learn more about the Save the Soldiers Home effort, and to download a free downloadable walking tour app, visit http://www.SavetheSoldiersHome.com

Please check back often for additional updates on Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home. Also, donate today to support the National Trust’s ongoing work that this National Treasure.

Posted on September 30, 2014

By Dawn McCarthy, President of the Board, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance 

On Sunday, September 21, 50 people had a unique opportunity to experience an invaluable historical asset to the nation -- the Milwaukee Soldiers Home on the grounds of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center.

The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance teamed with the Milwaukee VA Medical Center to offer two “behind the scenes” tours as part of the fourth annual Doors Open Milwaukee event. Doors Open Milwaukee provides rare access to more than 150 Milwaukee buildings, free-of-charge to the public. Each building boasts “hidden treasures and special stories.”

The Soldiers Home is no exception! The Milwaukee Soldiers Home is one of the three original Soldiers Homes in the country -- facilities built to care for returning Civil War veterans -- with some of the oldest buildings in the VA system. This was the second year that a Soldiers Home tour was available through Doors Open Milwaukee and the demand was high. People lined up for free tickets and they were gone in less than 10 minutes!

Tour participants, including veterans and some who had traveled from across the state, were enthralled with the historic buildings. They were also interested in the future of the district and, more specifically, its vacant buildings.

This weekend was an excellent opportunity to share the Soldiers Home story with the public; provide an update on the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance’s progress toward helping the VA return the District’s vacant buildings to the service of veterans; and raise awareness of one of Milwaukee’s “hidden jewels.”

To learn more about the Save the Soldiers Home effort, and to download a free downloadable walking tour app, visit http://www.SavetheSoldiersHome.com.

Please check back often for additional updates on Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home. Also, donate today to support the National Trust’s ongoing work that this National Treasure.

 Milwaukee Preservation Alliance Milwaukee Preservation Alliance
Both photos credit: Milwaukee Preservation Alliance

Posted on September 19, 2014

Written by Sarah Berger, Public Affairs Intern

Take a behind the scenes tour of Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home this Sunday, September 21, during Doors Open Milwaukee’s fourth annual architectural open house event. More than 150 buildings, bars and parks are open to the public offering in-house tour guides to answer questions and share historical facts.

The Milwaukee Soldiers Home, open since 1867, has served as a safe haven for veterans during their transition back to civilian life. As one of the first locations of the Department of Veterans Affairs, this site is an outstanding representation of the development of a national system of medical and residential benefits for disabled veterans.

The Soldiers Home Historic District features a significant amount of buildings in the Victorian style, many of which were designed by local architects Henry C. Koch and Edward Townsend Mix. Join Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and others who care deeply about the Soldiers Home for an in-depth, outdoor guided walking tour through the grounds and learn about the architecture and history of the buildings.

Tickets are required for both Sunday tours at 2pm and 4pm. Each tour will last one hour and can accommodate 25 people. Pick up tickets the day of the tour at 10am at Milwaukee City Hall (200 E. Wells St.) on a first-come, first-served basis.
For more information on Doors Open Milwaukee, as well as this weekend’s events, visit their website: doorsopenmilwaukee.org.

Please check back often for additional updates on Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home. Also, donate today to support the National Trust’s ongoing work at this National Treasure.

Posted on July 16, 2014

VA road signThe positive momentum at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home continued with two recent developments.

First, after a brutally cold winter, the advent of warmer weather (finally!) ushered in the return of construction season in Milwaukee. At the Soldiers Home, the VAMC has a lengthy punch list of projects they hope to complete this summer, including:

  • The Old Hospital Building (1879) will be completely re-roofed, with wood re-painted and windows and doors repaired. Additionally, the building’s chimney will be re-constructed and wrought iron decorative cresting will be newly fabricated or repaired.
  • The Barracks Buildings will undergo repointing, scraping and painting. Additionally, the buildings’ gutters and downspouts will be fixed and shingles will be replaced where needed. The porches will also undergo repairs and be painted.
  • And the Ward Theater, built in 1881 and currently vacant, will be reroofed and undergo exterior masonry and porch repairs.

These much-needed repairs demonstrate important progress as the National Trust continues work on the overall goal of working with the VA to address the critical need for a long-term solution that will return the Soldiers Homes’ vacant buildings to the service of veterans.

Another key goal of the Trust’s work at the Soldiers Home is to raise the visibility of this National Treasure, and we are pleased to report progress on that front as well. This month, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign undertaken by our local partners at the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA), the Wisconsin Department of Transportation installed new signs along Interstate 94 directing visitors to the Soldiers Home.

We were inspired by the overwhelming community response to this fundraising campaign, which included many individual donations as well as a $5,000 matching grant from the National Trust. The signs will be seen by tens of thousands of travelers along I-94, serving as a permanent invitation to visit Milwaukee’s iconic National Treasure.

Please check back often for additional updates on the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home.  Also, donate today to support the National Trust's ongoing work at this National Treasure.

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Steve Bogart on August 03, 2014
My Great Great Grandfather Levant Van De Bogart lived there in the turn of the century in 1900. He served with the 21st. Wisconsin Infantry during the war. He was a member of the GAR...I am a member of the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Carol Herman on June 12, 2014
I have seen that big tall tower from the freeway as well as the cemetery driving by many times over many years and always wondered about it...I rented a car in Fall 2013 and drove over to the historic district and cemetery, I'm glad I did. I marveled at all the old buildings and the history of the entire area. I Was very amazed by all. I have been doing research on Milwaukee County since the mid 1980s, and as I get older...I really appreciate the history of Milwaukee. This area was the highlight!
Linda Marker on June 11, 2013
I was a nursing instructor from UWM and had senior students who did a rotation with the Dom vets when they still lived in the main dom building. The first day of clinical we got a tour of all the buildings- the library, Ward theater, the chapel. Even then- 1979 and 1980 -the buildings needed repair. We had a Christmas party for the Dom vets in the library and I dressed up as Santa and the students provided food and decorations. Our time with the vets and this special place will not be forgotten. I believe the vets felt special having these students and the students and I sure felt honored. I very much hope this place can be saved!!!
Leo Bethge on May 20, 2013
I've always had a passion for architecture and specifically how it affects the human spirit. When I was a kid I always knew of that old Victorian tower of Old Main, but after I served and came back for care, there were many occasions that I sat and contemplated my own thoughts. Though I was dealing with my own level of PTSD I absorbed the gracious surroundings of mature trees and buildings designed to mend the body and spirit. There is peace and tranquility at this site, which is what us veterans need. All of the buildings need to be rehabbed since they are history and the future. There are many needs of today's homecoming vets that need to be fulfilled, and these buildings could serve these needs, of which also includes the grounds surrounding these historic buildings. I believe in preservation, since these buildings tell a story for today's and future generations - but these buildings, like cemeteries are special places worthy of special protection and preservation.
Arvid Tillman on April 22, 2013
I was a laborer in the late 50's working my way through college. I was unloading box cars of bricks at the nearby railroad siding and transporting them to what has now become the main hospital. Before work, during the lunch hour and sometimes after work I used to spend time with the veterans and listen to their war stories and music. One fellow played an amazing banjo and it really was a great attraction to me... I learned to respect what those fellows did for us.
Cheryl Adams on March 28, 2013
The lawns, trees and isolation from street traffic at the Soldiers Home must certainly have had a calming affect on any soldier or sailor who sought to escape the noise and dangers of war while healing both physically & mentally.
Peter Bruce Photo on March 16, 2013
Pls help people CLEVELAND Dam it ARCHITECTURE needs you,take 2 mins & sign this and save a land mark and pass it to as many people as poss It will be your fault and your loss if it goes. https://www.change.org/petitions/councilman-jay-westbrook-cudell-improvement-director-anita-brindza-requesting-a-town-hall-meeting-prior-to-the-sale-or-demolition-of-fifth-church?utm_campaign=mailto_link&utm_medium=email&utm_source=share_petition
John Hien on March 13, 2013
I think vets, certainly disabled vets, who lived there thought "This was built for me" and appreciated what was offered. I hope the buildings are not torn down, but rehabbed, preserving their beauty and elegance, and made useful again.
Maryagnes Kuehmichel on March 13, 2013
For me as a Nam vet it always helps even to drive through the grounds and see the beauty both manmade and natural. This new batch of vets seem to be having more physical trauma due to the IEDs so anything that calms and helps them heal is beneficial.
Michael Smith on March 13, 2013
Over the years, the peaceful setting most certainly must have contributed to the rehabilitation and renewal of many of the residents. We are extremely fortunate to have this Soldiers Home here in Milwaukee. We should marshall all possible resources, public and private, to preserve this fabulous resource for our veterans of today and tomorrow.
Jose Dehoyos on March 13, 2013
It's on a sacred and respected location with so much history and when I'm there taking pictures it helps me relax and think about all the spirits that are still there.
Hugh Swofford on March 13, 2013
My great Uncle lived on the grounds. He was in the domiciliary until he was in his 90's and then was moved to the VA hospital. I visited him there in 1978 when he was about 100.
Meghan Deutsch on March 13, 2013
Its the most amazingly beautiful place--the rolling hills of green, all the trees. Its a peaceful place of remembrance. I love all of the history that it holds--the memories of the people that will live there forever and the amazing buildings. I can only imagine all of the amazing stories that the places hold.
Laura Lutter Cole on March 13, 2013
I moved to Milwaukee in 1997, and being a huge Civil War historical enthusiast, read about The Old Soldiers Home. Little did I know just four years later I would live less than a mile away and be able to enjoy its grandeur on a regular basis. Then I learned my Uncle was buried there, so it's even more special to me. Living in a nearby neighborhood, I visit Wood [Cemetery] regularly. While walking my dog I enjoy the peaceful serenity and take in the beauty of the buildings, landscape, and truly appreciate our fortune as a community to have this rare historic treasure in our backyard.
Richard Bowen on March 13, 2013
I love the un-landscaped rolling hills, the pathways and the small lakes. The building architecture is outstanding and gives one a clear view of the past. I have biked through the grounds many times and it is a good place to bike. I enjoy the historical plaques and was able to spend some time in the library.
Diane L. Hatchell, PhD on November 09, 2012
I did my graduate school training and research at Wood VA Hospital in the laboratory of Shirley Johnson, PhD, from 1963-1968. After I obtained my PhD in physiology from Marquette University in 1968, I was employed as a Research Scientist at Wood VA and rose to the rank of Professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. I moved to the Durham NC VA Hospital and Duke University in 1983. I retired in 2000 and returned to Wisconsin as a year round resident in 2009. I am proud of my 30 plus years of service in the Veterans Administration I regret that I never took time to explore the National Soldiers Home in the 20 years that I worked on the Wood VA campus. Their stately presence on campus was readily apparent and we were proud that retired veterans were cared for there. I don’t know how the buildings were allowed to deteriorate but believe that it would be very sad for the memories contained there to be eradicated by loss of the buildings and failure to develop the grounds for use by the public and especially veterans. It would be wonderful to see the buildings restored to their prior glory and put to use in the service of veterans. I strongly support the Consensus Report and look forward to being part of the process in some way.
Howard Hinterthuer on October 18, 2012
As a boy, I gazed across the right field fence at County Stadium and saw hundreds of veterans blanketing the hillside in front of Old Main. “What’s that Dad,” I asked. “That is the Veterans Home,” he replied. “They are guys who were wounded during the war.” “What are they doing?” I asked. “Watching the game,” he said. “They can see over the fence from up there.” It’s nice to know they have a place, I thought to myself. The shingled look of Old Main seemed like a voice from the past, with stories to tell. Vietnam vets like me were told not to wear our uniforms on the flight from Seattle to our homes. “There’s no sense in stirring up trouble with protesters in airports,” the army advised. I’m sure it was intended as a kindness. They sincerely wished us a safe journey and hoped we wouldn’t bloody the nose of someone taunting “baby killer!” Veterans from all wars have often struggled with a variety of issues coming home. In my case, my girlfriend had “gone hippy” and was living with another guy. My parents were in Europe. I had no one to pick me up at the airport, and thoughts of sleeping in my own bed were nothing more than a dream. Mom had turned my room into an office. To me the message seemed to be, “We didn’t think you’d come home.” In truth, it is more likely I was just simply off of their day-to-day radar—sort of a non-person. But readjusting to “home” is also problematic in the sense that each of us had been profoundly changed. My friend, Robert, spent a month on the couch sleeping, emotionally paralyzed. His mom finally said, “Robert. You have to get off the couch and do something.” So Robert went back to Vietnam as a civilian, got off the plane in Saigon, kissed the tarmac, hitched a ride back to his old unit, and opened a bar. Robert told me, “Vietnam seemed more like home to me. It also made more sense.” Here’s the whacky thing: I understood perfectly how he felt. The military has been dumping broken people back into civilian life since David slew Goliath. At times we’ve done a good job addressing their physical wounds. My training as a clinical specialist was world class. As a twenty-two-year-old, I was effective in my job and well prepared for a host of unbelievable challenges. We knew how to deal with all sorts of physical insults. But psychological and spiritual pain is a tougher nut to crack, diagnosis- and treatment-wise. Returning veterans need a healing environment where they are able to transition from the insanity and loss of personal control that characterize combat, to a state of relative calm and personal safety. They need another sort of “basic training,” the kind that will prepare them for normality. All vets need it, to varying degrees, and honestly, it is hard to predict who will need it or when issues may bubble up. The Veterans Home could serve the purposes of “retraining” vets for civilian life, and touching up the dents along the way. It can also be a research institution devoted to developing effective methodologies. In many ways, The Veterans Home is the perfect setting. The historic architecture, mature trees, bucolic grounds, and village ambience speak of solid continuity and calm. Even the cemetery says, “You will be cared for and cared about.” These elements have iconic value. Combine them with meaningful activities that engage and connect vets with each other and with their families, and you have a recipe for success. That’s the way it looks from here.
Elizabeth Hummitzsch on October 18, 2012
My first experience with Milwaukee's Soldiers Home Historic District was when it was named one of the 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I remember learning about the buildings and remarking that I hadn't heard of them before. I went out to the District to walk around the site and I remember seeing Old Main for the first time and shortly after, seeing this picture. The size and detail of Old Main is overwhelming. If you haven't seen it in-person I recommend getting out to the site. The building itself incites a sense of awe but then to step back and think about the history it possess makes it even more powerful. To see it open to the elements and threatened due to the roof collapse was saddening. I am encouraged by recent efforts to stabilize the building - all in the name of returning it to the service of our veterans, its original purpose.
Megan Daniels, Milwaukee, WI on July 05, 2012
I first experienced the National Soldiers Home in Milwaukee on an unexpectedly warm, sunny April afternoon. I had gone in search of the almost haunting tower that loomed over the tree line just west of Miller Park; it was unlike any other in the city beckoning my curiosity from across the freeway. The nature of the former recuperative village took hold of my afternoon where I pleasantly strolled between the buildings rekindling the grounds original use as center for veteran healing and a tranquil park for the residents of Milwaukee.
Bob Curry, Milwaukee, WI on July 05, 2012
I first discovered these gems of history when I strolled up a hill taking a break from my PTSD groups at the VA Hospital. These grounds and buildings talked of an earlier time, when healing was not just about pills and procedures. It was about nature, fresh air, and majestic trees; where the buildings themselves are art. A place where the community helped heal their veterans by visiting on the weekends, both enjoying music in the park and the company of each other. We could learn much from these healers of a century ago, to help our newest generation of veterans heal their wounds of war.

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