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Milwaukee Preservation Alliance celebrates Soldiers Home restoration with plans to save more buildings

The decade-long effort to “Save the Soldiers Home” sees occupancy of the once endangered historic building, with vital services reaching those veterans in need.

More than ten years ago, the most iconic post-Civil War era buildings at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home were in imminent danger of collapse. Realizing the urgent need for action and believing that a preservation solution existed, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance developed a campaign to bring attention to the nationally significant Wisconsin landmark.

This spring the campaign declared a victory after a complex and comprehensive rehabilitation project returned six historic buildings, including Old Main, to the service of veterans as 101 units of housing for homeless and at-risk veterans.

“At the time, seeing the buildings in such disrepair, it was hard to envision a solution. But even before we found a path forward, we always knew the end goal, which is to restore the buildings and put them back into the service of veterans,” said Peter Zanghi, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance President.

In 2011, MPA successfully nominated the District to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, bringing national attention to the District and jumpstarting the preservation effort. The momentum from the designation spurred MPA’s work in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Wisconsin Historical Society, National Park Service and others to create a framework and vision for rehabilitation of the Soldiers Home’s vacant buildings. Thanks to The Alexander Company, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Center for Veterans Issues, and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, that vision has now become a reality.

“Today we celebrate the completion of a years-long advocacy project – of hundreds of volunteer hours spent in meetings, outreach, in-person walking tours, letter writing and fundraising that helped to save these beautiful buildings. The Milwaukee Soldiers Home carries national significance for its role in veteran healthcare, and we are thrilled that six historic buildings have been restored and will serve our nation’s veterans for many years to come,” said Zanghi.

With a focus on engaging with local stakeholders, MPA and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) partnered to create a Community Advisory Council (CAC) consisting of veterans, preservationists, elected officials, and business leaders. The group met regularly and created a consensus report outlining a vision for the Soldiers Home, which became a vital tool in MPA’s advocacy efforts.

Backed by the support and involvement of the CAC, MPA led outreach to educate the community about the Soldiers Home and raise awareness of the veteran needs that could be met through the rehabilitation of its buildings. Through MPA’s years of efforts, including the creation of a free downloadable walking tour app and an online learning resource, and building an extremely popular and active online following, MPA raised strong recognition of the Soldiers Home’s significance and built support for its rehabilitation.

MPA’s “Save the Soldiers Home” campaign reached a critical milestone when, in 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking responses from developers interested in rehabilitating a number of the Milwaukee Soldiers Home District’s unused historic buildings. When a team led by The Alexander Company and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee was chosen by the VA, MPA stepped in to serve as the project’s fiscal agent, helping to fundraise and manage the project’s $3 million capital campaign necessary to fill the project’s financing gap.

The unprecedented rehabilitation project may serve as a national model for federally owned historic properties.

“Our hope is that the federal government will consider the success of this project and find ways to restore vacant and / or deteriorating historic buildings across the country,” said Zanghi. “We now know firsthand that with the right community partners and stakeholders at the table, we can and have found mutually beneficial, cost-effective ways to preserve history and meet the needs of today’s citizens.”

The Soldiers Home project has already begun to have an impact on the national stage, as the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation recently released a report making recommendations to promote productive use of federally owned historic buildings through outleasing, citing the Milwaukee Soldiers Home as a success story.

What started with a hole in the roof of Old Main led to a campaign that resulted in the rehabilitation of six historic buildings and turned them into state-of-the-art facilities. MPA’s Save the Soldiers Home project serves as a case statement for preservation advocacy and demonstrates the value that historic preservation can offer to the community.

Encouraged by the success of the current project, MPA has set its sights on three additional endangered Soldiers Home buildings: Ward Memorial Theater, the Soldiers Home Chapel and the Governor’s Mansion. Currently, MPA is raising funds to secure a report that explores opportunities to save these buildings. The fundraising is supported by a $5,000 matching grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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Lee Matz

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