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Milwaukee Soldiers Home veterans housing reaches capacity as VA eyes other possible renovation projects

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Chuck Quirmbach
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WUWM
The renovated Old Main building on the Soldiers Home campus.

It will soon be a "full house" at the Soldiers Home at the Milwaukee VA on the city's west side.

The company that completed a $44 million renovation project earlier this year said all 101 housing units for low-income veterans would be occupied by the end of this month. The federal government said it hopes to interest developers in updating more buildings on the VA campus, which dates back to the late 1860s.

At one point, more than 1,000 wounded veterans from the Civil War and veterans from other conflicts lived at Old Main, which is the Victorian Gothic building with the six-story tower.

The VA's Michael Mullen said that building is a local icon.

"It's hard to drive from the zoo to the lakefront without seeing the Old Main spire," Mullen said.

But in the last third of the 20th century the remaining residents left, and after some years just for VA staff use, the large building fell into disrepair. National historic groups called it an endangered site.

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Chuck Quirmbach
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The Zablocki VA hospital is visible from the window on the upper floors of Old Main.

But then the public and private sectors got together on a deal that included historic preservation tax credits, donations and other capital. This past spring, the renovated Old Main and five smaller buildings reopened to veterans who were homeless or at risk of homelessness. Federal housing vouchers help pay the rent.

Mullen is the historical liaison for the Clement Zablocki Medical Center and keeps tabs on all the buildings in the Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark District.

Mullen said he's extremely pleased with the housing renovation, not just as a VA employee.

"I'm a veteran, and to see veterans actually come in and occupy these apartments is just fantastic," Mullen said.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation gave Soldiers Home a preservation excellence award.

Following a brief ceremony inside the Old Main, Jon Beck of The Alexander Company, a Madison-based real estate developer with a 75-year enhanced-use lease with the VA, gave visitors a tour. Beck began in the former primary entrance hallway, talking about the restored exterior doors.

"[Those exterior doors] were put in storage 30 years ago.  All of the plaster walls ended up being restored, all the terrazzo ended up being redone. My guess is this went in right after World War II," Beck said.

Besides that composite flooring, other parts of Old Main have restored wooden floors. 

Most of the living space is for men and women, but Beck also showed one of the two wings designated for women veterans only.

"For any woman veteran that wants to feel comfortable, we have this wing, which is five units and another wing that is six units," Beck said.

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Chuck Quirmbach
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A first-floor lounge inside Old Main is decorated for the Christmas holiday.

The restored Old Main also includes a large central lounge, a recreation hall, a computer training center and offices for case managers who work with the veterans. The slate and asphalt roof has been replaced.

But it's not the only 19th century structure at the Soldiers Home that has needed attention.

Down the hill from Old Main is an empty building with a high barbed wire fence around it.

"We had some individuals who were entering the facility, and causing some damage," Mullen said.

The building is Ward Memorial Theatre, which over the last 140 years has served as an amusement hall for veterans, a performance venue, a place of worship, a restaurant and even a railroad ticket office.

Nearly a decade ago, the VA spent about $4 million on the exterior of the Ward to give it a facelift.

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Chuck Quirmbach
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Zablocki VA Historical Liaison Michael Mullen stands outside the Ward Memorial Theatre.

Mullen said sometime next year, the VA hopes to put out a request for proposals to see if private developers want to redo the inside. The request for proposals may also include renovating two other older buildings, the chapel and the governor's residence built in 1868 as quarters for Soldiers Home leaders.

Mullen said the hope is to add a cafe or grocery store to the somewhat isolated area.

"Some of these modern day conveniences, just things everybody takes for granted every day, that are in your neighborhood, we don't have here on this campus," Mullen said.

The Alexander Company, making money on the Old Main renovation, isn't committing to anything. But Beck said it would be "great to do another project" with the VA. Beck said it has been "wonderful" to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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