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 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.

Posted on May 13, 2014

Posted by Virgil McDill

The enduring educational value of the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home was on display recently, when a group of students from Hamilton High School toured the campus as part of an after-school program organized by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

As this article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, the students had attended a play called “The Whipping Man” about a Jewish Confederate Civil War soldier returning home after the war. The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s education director was looking for a Civil War-era place in Milwaukee that could add to the students’ understanding of the era, and—with its buildings dating to shortly after the end of the Civil War—she found the perfect place in the Soldiers Home.

The article calls the Soldiers’ Home a “hidden treasure,” and notes that “Megan Daniels, project manager for the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, frequently hears from folks, including many native Milwaukeeans, who tell her they had never heard of the Soldiers Home.”

It is a treasure, but it doesn’t have to stay hidden. For anyone who has admired the Soldiers Home from afar and wondered what this amazing collection of historic buildings looks like up close, this is a perfect time. Walking tours, organized by the National Trust and the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, offer visitors a chance to see the campus for themselves. And as we’ve noted before, a walking tour app for both iPhone and Android devices is available for free download at the Apple and GooglePlay sites. For more information about touring the Soldiers Home, please visit http://savethesoldiershome.com/tour/.

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.

Posted on January 15, 2014

Dawn McCarthyPosted by Dawn McCarthy, President, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance

Please donate now to help Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, Inc. raise money for signage at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home.

One message that MPA hears often about the Soldiers Home is "Where is it? I never heard of it." The other message we hear most often about the Soldiers Home is "OMG. The Soldiers Home is so incredible. How did I live in Milwaukee all of my life and not know about it."

The best thing we can do as a community to Save the Soldiers Home is to make sure everyone knows it's there, because once you see it, you can't help caring that it gets restored. Our goal is to help the VAMC get the buildings restored and put back to use in service to veterans.

Please donate now at milwaukeepreservationalliance.org.

Thank you!

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

Posted on November 07, 2013

Amy Cole

Written by Amy Cole, Team Member

Today the National Trust released a new report entitled Honoring Our Veterans:  Saving Their Places of Health Care and Healing.  The report explores the Department of Veterans Affairs cultural resource stewardship practices, identifies deficiencies and best practices and highlights the work the National Trust has been doing at Milwaukee Soldier’s Home to save this National Treasure.  We hope this report will help to change policies at the VA that are preventing historic VA properties from being saved or reused.

VA Report

The report identifies four main recommendations to help save places in the VA’s portfolio of more than 2,000 historic buildings:

1. Top management of the VA must strongly and unequivocally commit to and support the protection of historic VA facilities—in order to comply with federal historic preservation laws and to ensure the best care possible for our nation’s veterans.

2. VA staff should be encouraged to support—and resources must be allocated for—the preservation of the historic buildings with which they have been entrusted.  The planning process for VA facilities needs to be revised to include assessment of historic resources before years of planning for new buildings, and sometimes even congressional authorization, make it difficult to change decisions that have become set in stone.

3. Opportunities to reuse and protect the VA’s historic buildings through private developers and other non-governmental parties should be expanded and actively promoted.

4. Preservationists and other advocates must help the VA recognize the value of historic buildings to the mission and work of the agency and the communities in which they exist.

Ultimately, the Trust will utilize the report as a tool to collaborate with the VA and help them make better decisions about using and caring for their amazing collection of architecture and landscapes.  Congress can help us with this charge, and so can local preservationists.  The preservation and continued use of the VA’s medical facilities would honor not just living veterans, but all veterans, for whom the historically significant buildings and landscapes were designed and built.

Two local representatives had this to say about the study and the Milwaukee Soldiers Home,

Megan Daniels, Manager for the Milwaukee Soldiers Home Project, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance --

“Overall, the report is incredibly informative and comprehensive...  The recommendations put forth by the National Trust really underscore the work that we have been doing at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home... I truly hope that Milwaukee could be a model for other VA campus’s to follow in order to be stewards of their own unique and nationally significant historic assets while also providing quality health care to our nation’s veterans.”

Bill Goralski, President, Allied Veterans Council, Milwaukee --

"These buildings are great educational tools, like a show-and-tell to teach young people about the sacrifices veterans have made. You don’t have to be a veteran to understand that – anyone who visits the place gets that idea... People need to come to Milwaukee and see the hospital grounds. What they did for veterans by building this place is just phenomenal.  We want to celebrate these places that have done so much for the warriors who’ve spent time there.

Destroying the history of your country is just wrong. We need the people of this country—especially veterans—to speak up. These places are sacred ground and people need to speak up for them before they’re gone."


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

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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.

Campaign Overview

Threat: Lack of Funding
Funds Secured:
$ 337,000
Fundraising Goal: $ 560,000
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