The Alexander Company, Milwaukee Veterans Administration, Center for Veterans Issues, and Milwaukee Preservation Alliance provided exclusive media access on May 22 to historic sites at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus, including the Ward Memorial Theater, Chapel, and Governor’s Mansion.

The hard hat walking tour, attended by Milwaukee Independent, offered a first look at the buildings before rehabilitation work begins. It was an opportunity to explore the structures, which have not been accessible for years due to their deteriorating condition.

A month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to create a national system of homes for disabled veterans. Established in 1867, the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home is one of the three original Soldiers Homes in the country.

The 90-plus acre district rests on the grounds of the Clement J. Zablocki Medical Center and was designed to be a place of refuge for Civil War Soldiers and help ease their transition back to civilian life. One of only 43 National Historic Landmarks in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Soldiers Home contains some of the oldest and most historic buildings in the VA system.

In 2021, as part of an Enhanced Use Lease with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, The Alexander Company and a team of local organizations celebrated a major victory as veterans were welcomed home to Old Main and five other historic buildings on campus.

Building on this success, the focus now shifts to the Ward Memorial Theater, Soldiers Home Chapel, and the Governor’s Mansion, and rehabilitating these three additional historic buildings into community space and supportive service offices.

“I am immensely proud of The Alexander Company’s continued involvement in rehabilitating the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus, and our opportunity to play a part in expanding supportive services tailored to those who have served our country. This project is close to our hearts and our commitment runs deep. When these three additional landmarks are complete, they’ll stand as beacons of respect, support, and gratitude.” – Joe Alexander, President of The Alexander Company

Ward Memorial Hall, the two-and-a-half-story High Victorian Gothic Revival structure, stands as a testament to the historical significance and architectural grandeur of the late 19th century. Built from 1881 to 1882, during a period of significant expansion for the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS), Ward Memorial Hall has played a pivotal role in the lives of many veterans.

It was designed by prominent Milwaukee architect Henry C. Koch. The building features polychromatic brickwork, a steeply pitched hipped roof with cross gables, and a veranda wrapping around three sides with ornamental wood posts and railings. The architectural elements were meticulously chosen to create a structure that was not only functional but also visually appealing, offering a dignified space for the recreation and comfort of its residents.

The establishment of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers was a direct response to the increasing number of Union soldiers returning from the Civil War with wounds and injuries that rendered them unable to support themselves.

In 1865, Congress passed an Act that President Lincoln signed into law, creating several sites across the northern states to care for these veterans. The Northwestern Branch in Milwaukee was established in 1866, and by the late 1870s, the need for more specialized buildings became apparent as the veteran population grew.

Officially dedicated on March 15, 1882, a grand ceremony was held for the Hall that included a concert featuring the National Home band, the local Arion Music Club, and the Cecilian Choir. The event highlighted the community’s dedication to providing quality recreational facilities for veterans.

Originally, Ward Memorial Hall served multiple purposes. It housed a theater/meeting room, a store, a restaurant, and a railroad ticket office. The combination of uses was intended to meet the growing recreational needs of the veterans residing at the Northwestern Branch. In 1898, the theater was reconfigured to include a sloped floor, balcony, and boxes flanking the proscenium stage, transforming it into an 800-seat theater capable of hosting a variety of performances.

“We’re thrilled to be again working with The Alexander Company to bring these beautiful historic buildings back to life and restore them to their original intended purpose of serving our nation’s Veterans. This public-private partnership through our enhanced used lease will only enhance our ability to provide world-class care to America’s heroes. The Milwaukee VA campus has long been a place where Veterans can find community, and we look forward to returning the Chapel, Ward Theater, and Governor’s Mansion to their rightful places as centerpieces of that community.” – James D. McLain, Executive Director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center

As the decades passed, Ward Memorial Hall faced numerous challenges. The building’s condition deteriorated due to water infiltration, lack of climate control, and general neglect. Efforts to preserve and renovate the structure have been ongoing, with varying degrees of success. In the early 1980s, fundraising efforts led by the Soldiers Home Foundation and supported by local celebrity Wladziu “Walter” Liberace aimed to restore the theater, but these efforts were ultimately insufficient to secure the necessary funding.

The theater saw sporadic use throughout the late 20th century, including a period when the Milwaukee Players used it for rehearsals and offices. However, safety concerns, particularly regarding fire code compliance, led to the discontinuation of its use in 1992. Despite its vacant state, Ward Memorial Hall remains a symbol of the rich history and cultural heritage of the Northwestern Branch.

The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA) has served as the fiscal agent for the Every Hero Deserves a Home capital campaign, and its advocacy efforts reach back more than 10 years.

“Together with a wide array of partners, we are in the midst of accomplishing the seemingly impossible. After more than a decade of advocacy, MPA is thrilled to witness The Alexander Company and VA begin the next phase of work, with plans to restore three more iconic buildings for the service of our nation’s heroes.” – Emma Rudd, Executive Director of Milwaukee Preservation Alliance

Ward Memorial Hall quickly became a hub of entertainment for the veterans. The theater hosted light dramas, vaudeville shows, lectures, and concerts by the resident band. Performances that were deemed “too talky” often saw large groups of veterans walking out in protest. By 1910, weekly motion pictures were added to the entertainment lineup, reflecting the evolving tastes and technological advancements of the time.

The 7,316-square-foot chapel will be a multifunctional facility designed to serve various community needs. It will function as a nondenominational worship space, providing a tranquil environment for spiritual gatherings. Additionally, it will serve as a conference facility for training programs and mental health sessions, offering a conducive space for learning and healing. The chapel will also be available as an event venue for banquets, meetings, and more, making it a versatile asset to the community.

The 7,488-square-foot Governor’s Mansion, originally built as a residence for the director of the Soldiers Home, will become offices for support service providers and a technology training center. The transformation aligns with the modern needs of veterans, offering them access to essential services and training opportunities that can help them reintegrate into civilian life and enhance their career prospects.

The Center for Veterans Issues (CVI) will provide many of these supportive services to veterans, with their offices based in the Governor’s Mansion.

“We’re excited to be a part of national history here in Milwaukee. We’re focused on building and expanding our community involvement to provide additional resources and support to our Veteran community.” – Eduardo M. Garza, Jr., President of The Center for Veterans Issues

Funding for the $24.6 million project comes from a variety of sources, highlighting the broad support for this initiative. These sources include State and Federal Historic Tax Credits, PACT ACT Funding, National Park Service Save America’s Treasures Grants, New Markets Tax Credits, and philanthropic contributions. The diverse funding mix underscores the community’s commitment to preserving these historic buildings and providing valuable resources for veterans.

Milwaukee PBS premiered the documentary A Hallowed Home for Heroes, featuring Old Main, which aired on May 21, 2023. It highlighted the building’s historical significance, period of decay, and eventual restoration.

The show explored the importance of preserving the National Historic Landmark, emphasizing its deep roots in Wisconsin’s veteran community and its impact on Milwaukee’s development. The documentary aimed to educate and engage the public about its shared history and the legacy of Soldiers Home.

  • Historic Old Main: The decay and rebirth of Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home

Lee Matz