Hopes are high that another historic Milwaukee soldiers home building will come back to life
Veterans Day is Saturday. In its honor, WUWM brings you a close-to-home story.
Just a few miles west of downtown Milwaukee, beyond the baseball stadium’s retractable roof, the tower of Old Main touches the sky.
The Victorian Gothic building is the centerpiece of the Soldiers Home campus. It lies within the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center Campus.
The Soldiers Home is a series of buildings built in 1867 as a place for soldiers to heal as they returned from the Civil War.
Old Main gradually fell into disrepair and, by the 1990s, stood vacant. But Old Main and several other historic buildings on the campus were brought back to life in 2021 thanks to the efforts of a wide range of partnering organizations.
Old Main has been transformed into housing for more than 100 veterans and their families.
Now, historic preservationists hope a similar revival could be in store for another important building on the VA grounds. It’s the Ward Memorial Theater, where veterans once enjoyed entertainment and camaraderie. The theater is a stone’s throw from Old Main, and to an untrained eye, looks just as impressive.
The theater’s exterior is Romanesque in style and constructed of Cream City brick. It looks magnificent with its round arches and large symmetrical windows.
Cory Breu unlocks the gate of the tall fence surrounding the theater. He shares a few preventive tips. Number one is to wear a safety helmet at all times. “Don’t touch anything, watch where you walk,” Breu cautions.
Stepping inside, it’s clear, the 1881 building needs loads of love.
Pews are stacked backstage. They’re visiting from the nearby chapel – another of the Soldier Home’s historic buildings in need of repair. You see windows propped closed with planks.
Walls cry out for paint, and a battered piano stands forlornly on the littered stage. It’s Breu’s job to make sure that when the building gets the love it needs, it’s done right.
“I’m the historical liaison for the VA Medical Center, and I ensure that we operate within our historical landmark correctly and that we follow the protocols as far as rehabilitation of the historic buildings we have, and we work with our partners like Emma,” Breu says.
Emma Rudd heads Milwaukee Preservation Alliance. It played a key role in Old Main’s revival. Now the group has set its sights on the Ward Theater and two other buildings on the Soldiers Home campus.
“The three-pronged step of restoring the Ward Theater, the chapel and the governor’s mansion, all to service the existing veteran residents that are now living in Old Main,” Rudd says.
First in line though is the theater, designed by the prolific Milwaukee architect Henry C. Koch and built first as a hall.
Rudd says it was a place to socialize and relax. “It was a gathering place. Sometimes there were worship programs taking place here,” she says.
The Milwaukee Road rail line ran right outside the building. People could buy tickets inside and jump aboard the train from this very spot.
Cory Breu says in 1898 balconies, a stage and an orchestra pit were added.
“This was the ticket booth right here, so they would buy their tickets for the various shows. They’d bring vaudeville performers. A lot of soldiers, it was mostly soldiers who came to see the shows because Old Main was right up there, and it was just a quick short walk,” Breu says.
We climb a staircase along the building’s eastern wall, dodging raccoon droppings, until we reach a huge pane of clear glass.
That’s where one of the building’s hallmarks once glistened. It was a huge stained-glass depiction of General Ulysses S. Grant on horseback. It was a gift in 1887 from the people of St. Louis and the Grand Army of the Republic.
Now the window is tucked away until it can safely be reinstalled.
Both Breu and Rudd think the greatest treasure trove is to be found up and beyond the magnificent double staircase at the building’s main entrance.
Breu says an unknown “preservationist of sorts” painstakingly glued dozens of vintage posters inside a closet.
"So when an act was coming to the VA for the Solders Home they put up posters and these are probably anywhere from probably around the time the place probably until the 1930s,” he says.
Breu had a full military career under his belt before taking on this historic preservation post. Looking out at the theater, he considers his experiences and imagines the camaraderie veterans found in this space generations ago.
"Oh yeah, I’ve been in so many situations, deployed overseas and stuff, people of all different backgrounds watch a movie together or hang out at a club; all these things we do on base. So when I look at this theater, I can kind of picture what it’s like for that camaraderie to take place back in the 1800s, early 1900s,” Brue thinks it could be special again. ”Usually, when two veterans are in the room, they have common ground and can strike up a conversation pretty easily. I’ve seen it a lot around the VA.”
Besides her passion for historic preservation, Emma Rudd also has a personal reason for wanting to see he Ward Theater and the other historic buildings here coming back to life.
Her grandfather served in the National Guard for 45 years. Later in life, he drove veterans from the Marinette area where he lived to their appointments at the VA.
“He passed about a year ago, but I was thinking about how much he would have loved this, because I was telling Cory, he’d talked to the guys three hours, wait around and bring them home,” Rudd says.
Rudd says momentum is building for the Ward Theater’s renaissance, but will say nothing more until the momentum becomes reality.