Philanthropist and investment advisor Richard H. Driehaus understood the emotional resonance of well-designed buildings. “Too many places today are devoid of the uniqueness that lends itself to memory because we have failed as a society to thoughtfully preserve the places that we have inherited and to create new ones that resonate emotionally,” he said in a 2019 Profiles in Catholicism interview.
Driehaus, who was a devout preservationist, died earlier this year. But the awards program he began funding nearly a decade ago continues to recognize the nation’s best historic preservation projects. This year’s Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards, presented by the National Trust, show how saving a historic building – whether it’s Beaux-Arts, Victorian Gothic, or Midcentury Modern – fosters a sense of place. Thanks to the exceptional work of many organizations and individuals, these three award winners (listed in alphabetical order) will continue to be part of our architectural heritage and collective legacy.
Milwaukee soldiers Home, Milwaukee
In Milwaukee, local architect Edward Townsend Mix pulled out all the stops when he designed a 117,000-square-foot Victorian Gothic building to house Union Army soldiers who were disabled during their Civil War service. “The central location and elevation of the main building were matched by its scale and stately Victorian architecture. Not only did this building serve the Civil War veterans who first [entered] its doors in 1869, it also made a bold statement: This is how a grateful nation attempts to repay a debt owed to the defenders of the Union,” writes Patricia A. Lynch in her book Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home.
But by 1989, “Old Main” sat vacant. Once the centerpiece of an entire recuperative complex – and one of the original three National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers established by Congress – Old Main and its associated buildings began to decay. When the roof collapsed on one wing of Old Main in 2010, preservation efforts kicked into high gear. The next year, the campus received its National Historic Landmark designation, and was named one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America.
In addition to building public awareness, preservation advocates also leveraged federal regulations. Because the site’s owner, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), was seeking to build some long-term-care facilities on the landmarked campus, it was required by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to consult with the State Historic Preservation Office, National Park Service, and others before proceeding. In 2011, the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, the State Historic Preservation Office, and National Trust representatives negotiated an agreement: The VA could build the new facilities, but it also had to figure out how to preserve those antique buildings. “This project is a great example of how Section 106 [of the NHPA] was given full weight,” says jury member Shanon Miller, historic preservation officer for the city of San Antonio.
Five years later, the VA put out a request for proposals to rehabilitate Old Main and five smaller buildings for permanent supportive housing. Since 1991, the department has worked with developers and local governments to turn historic buildings into housing for homeless and at-risk veterans through its enhanced use lease program. Madison, Wisconsin-based developer The Alexander Company, which specializes in adaptive reuse projects, presented a plan that would create 101 units for veterans and their families.
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This article was originally published in Preservation Magazine.