More than five years ago, after a nomination was submitted by the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the Milwaukee Veterans Administration Soldiers Home Historic District had been named one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”
Built in 1867 to help wounded veterans recuperate from our nation’s bloodiest conflict, the historic Milwaukee complex is one of three original Civil War Soldiers Homes in the country.
We immediately felt the importance of this historic place, and knew, like so many other old buildings in our midst, it could still be used to provide important services to the community if given a chance. But, at the onset of our work, we were also faced with a challenging question: What will it mean to save the Soldiers Home? The answer was clear but daunting. We knew the Soldiers Home would be saved when veterans once again called Old Main home.
At first, the prospect of returning Old Main and other key Soldiers Home buildings to the service of veterans seemed nearly impossible. Due to a gaping hole in its roof, Old Main was exposed to the elements and subject to continued water damage. But thanks to the momentum of the “11 Most Endangered” designation, as well as the district where it is located being named a National Historic Landmark, and, later, one of the National Trust’s National Treasures, this slowly started to change. We began to celebrate small, incremental victories that, step-by-step, brought us closer to success.
Earlier this year, our coalition reached a critical milestone in our shared effort to save the Soldiers Home. In February, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a request for proposals from developers interested in rehabilitating a number of Soldiers Home buildings for homeless veteran housing. We saw this as a ray of hope for the buildings and for the veterans who are need the housing and services they could provide.
That hope is now reality. Earlier this month, the VA announced it has chosen The Alexander Co. and the Milwaukee city Housing Authority to rehabilitate six historic Soldiers Home buildings as supportive housing for veterans.
Key to this victory was building partnerships. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and MPA launched the Soldiers Home Community Advisory Council comprised of veterans, neighbors, and preservationists as well as civic, community, and business leaders. From the start, they have tirelessly advocated for the protection, repair and rehabilitation of the Soldiers Home. Other key partnerships were formed through the regulatory process that occurs with federally-owned historic properties. Other organizations came together, including the state Historic Preservation Office, the National Park Service, and the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, to work with the VA. This led to the VA’s commitment to stabilize Old Main, the Ward Theater and the Old Hospital.
Ultimately, much of the impetus came from the local community. The last few years have seen tremendous growth in people becoming passionate about the Soldiers Home. From MPA’s effort to fundraise for signage on the highway and Hank Aaron State Trail to thousands of downloads of our free smartphone walking tour app, friends, neighbors, and families across Wisconsin learned about the Soldiers Home.
This announcement has been years in the making. It has been the result of compromise and communication, public and private partnerships, and the steadfast dedication of the local community to restoring this historic complex to life. Thanks to the efforts of so many, veterans will once again be fully able to experience the grounds that were designed uniquely for them. Veterans will once again call Old Main home. The Soldiers Home will be saved.
Stephanie K. Meeks is President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Dawn McCarthy is the President of the Board of Directors of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance. To learn more, visit www.SavetheSoldiersHome.com.