The deteriorating but historic complex was destined for the wrecking ball until people started caring about it again.
George Banda learned a lot about relying on your brothers in arms during his 11-month tour as a medic in Vietnam. “If somebody gets hurt, you go where they’re laying, and you help,” the 70-year-old Milwaukeean says. “You need to go out there and get them and bring them back.”
Upon returning home, Banda found healing for his mental wounds through communities of other veterans – the only people he’s found who truly understand what he endured. “That’s what helps veterans,” Banda says. “When veterans get together, they help each other.”
Two years ago, Banda, a retired firefighter, was invited to join the community board shaping the future of The Soldiers Home, a historic but long-neglected collection of buildings just outside the Menomonee Valley.
For more than a century, the campus served as a refuge for wounded warriors. As many as 1,000 disabled Civil War vets lived at The Soldiers Home during the late 1800s in disability-specific companies, each with particular duties. The Home’s firefighters, for example, included a contingent of one-armed men.
In the last 40 years, many of its 20-plus buildings have fallen into disuse and disrepair while the nearby Zablocki VA Medical Center has grown. Old Main, the grounds’ 130,000-square-foot centerpiece that long housed the largest portion of the Home’s veterans, has been blocked off since 1989.
But by fall 2020, it is set to reopen as housing for up to 80 vets at risk of homelessness.
The Alexander Company – a Madison-based developer that specializes in “adaptive reuse” of aging structures – signed a 75-year lease with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reopen six buildings. Plans for the $40 million undertaking include apartments for 101 veterans in total, plus a few duplexes for vets’ families. Supervision and services will be provided by the VA, along with support from the Center for Veterans Issues and the Milwaukee Housing Authority.
“This project is 100 percent veterans-focused,” says Jonathan Beck, the Alexander Co. project manager who’s served on the community advisory board since 2011, around the time a gaping hole appeared in Old Main’s roof.
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This article was originally published in Milwaukee Magazine.