From the beginning, this country showed concern for the housing of its veterans: the first national veterans’ home in the United States was the United States Naval Home, approved in 1811, but not opened until 1834 in the Philadelphia Naval Yard. Things picked up after the Civil War, and by 1933, there were 17 federally-managed veterans’ homes. 43 states managed 55 functioning state veterans’ homes before 1933; 14 of those states also had a federal veterans’ home open at the same time.
Established in 1867, the Milwaukee Soldiers Home is one of three original Soldiers Homes in the country, with some of the oldest and most historic buildings in the VA system. It is one of only 43 National Historic Landmarks in Wisconsin and one of Wisconsin’s most historic assets. However, more than 30 years ago, after years of housing veterans, buildings on the campus were vacated and subsequently fell into disrepair.
Now, six buildings are restored and returned to the service of veterans. The monumental milestone marks the completion of a complex, decade-long preservation and rehabilitation project achieved through the collaboration of organizations nationwide.
“This incredible preservation success demonstrates the benefits of historic restoration and what can be achieved through a successful public-private partnership,” said Joe Alexander, President of the Alexander Company, via a published press release. “It serves as proof that strategic partnerships, visionary leadership, and creative funding cannot just save buildings, but tackle homelessness, ignite a community, and serve as a national model.”
Based in Madison, Wisconsin, the Alexander Company is an architectural firm with nearly 40 years’ experience specializing in urban infill development and historic preservation.
The restoration project began in 2011, when the Milwaukee Soldiers Home Landmark District was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s (NTHP) list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Following this honor, the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA) and the NTHP joined together to form the Milwaukee Soldiers Home Community Advisory Council. The Alexander Company joined the Council, alongside groups of committed veterans and preservation organizations, to explore the protection, repair, and rehabilitation of the Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Landmark District.
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The $44 million project was a collective effort of many to preserve this national historic landmark. Funding for the project came from sources including low income housing tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits, grants, fundraising, and other soft financing options.
The result is a campus opened to veterans in March 2021 featuring six restored buildings that offer 101 permanent supportive housing units for veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. To preserve the history of the district and to connect generations of veterans, many of the buildings’ original features were restored and decorated with a mix of modern and historic design elements. Among the restored architecture, residents and visitors enjoy Old Main’s iconic Gothic windows, historic grand entrance, the refinished wood and terrazzo flooring and decorative pressed-metal ceilings. Crucial updates to the buildings’ infrastructure, including plumbing, electrical, and paint removal, laid the groundwork for the architects to equip spaces with accessible entrances and community areas.
“This project shows it takes a village to raise a village,” says Tony Perez, secretary-executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee. “The intentionality of the VA, the commitment of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), Mayor Barrett’s support and the involvement of investors, philanthropic-minded corporations and individuals are what made the preservation of Soldiers Home possible.”