Restoration of a national treasure: Grand opening of Soldiers Home returns site to the service of veterans
The Alexander Company celebrated the grand opening and dedication of six buildings on May 27 at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus, a monumental milestone marking the completion of a complex, decade-long preservation and rehabilitation project achieved through the collaboration of organizations nationwide.
Opened to veterans in March 2021, the six restored buildings now offer 101 permanent supportive housing units for veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Veteran residents receive access to a range of supportive services, including case management, educational training and employment assistance, benefits assistance, recreational activities, independent living skills training, sobriety maintenance and nutritional support.
“Over the years, there have been naysayers who said this would never be done. But we knew we could do it,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. “I honestly cannot think of a more extraordinary and meaningful historic preservation project in this community in the last generation.”
Organizations across the country, as well as locally, joined together to make this complex historic project a reality. Significant grassroots support from preservationists, historians, veterans, elected officials and business leaders aided in identifying a vision for the future use of the District’s vacant buildings.
“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. “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.”
The Alexander Company and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM) brought together their expertise in historic preservation and adaptive re-use, commitment to providing high-quality, affordable housing
“There’s a sense of disbelief that this is a reality for these veterans and their families to be living in such a beautiful place, mainly because some of them have never been able to live in something like this that they could call home,” said Eduardo M. Garza, President and CEO for the Center for Veterans Issues (CVI). “We’re grateful for the opportunity to rebuild the lives of Veterans and their families who once thought they would not see a place for them to call home. The reopening of the Soldiers Home has created a new start for many of our Veterans and their families.”
Established in 1867 after the Civil War, 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, after years of service housing veterans, buildings on the Soldiers Home campus were vacated more than 30 years ago and subsequently fell into disrepair.
To further preserve the history of the District and 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 will find Old Main’s iconic gothic windows and historic grand entrance brought back to life, alongside refinished wood and terrazzo floors and decorative tin ceiling tiles. Crucial updates to the buildings’ infrastructures, including plumbing, electrical and paint removal laid the groundwork for the architects to equip spaces with accessible entrances and community areas.
“This is huge. Having a secure safe place to live just can’t be understated. It’s a huge determinant of health, so this is a great partnership for us and to have a place where they can call home and they feel safe,” said James McLain, Deputy Director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. “For some individuals, life is a challenge. This gives them the chance to really have all those resources to bring everything back together again and get on level footing.”
Over 175 pieces of artwork will be on display as part of the buildings’ permanent furnishings, all curated by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, with all selections either from Wisconsin Veteran archival collections or featuring Wisconsin Veteran stories. Artwork and artifacts also will be featured in the building’s History Center to honor and celebrate stories from the original veteran residents.
“This project shows it takes a village to raise a village,” said Tony Pérez, Secretary-Executive Director of HACM. “The intentionality of the VA, the commitment of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and combined 90 years of real estate and property experience to lead the restoration project. 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.”
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.
In 2016, The Alexander Company responded to requests from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) seeking developers interested in rehabilitating the campus’ six unused historic buildings using an Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) agreement. As part of the EUL agreement, the VA chose The Alexander Company and HACM to lead a team for the restoration and rehabilitation project.
“The EUL is an authority that’s fairly unique to the VA that enables us to leverage our assets, particularly lands and buildings, to be out-leased to private sector or public partners to be repurposed, rehabilitated and put back into use for supportive housing for veterans,” said Brett Simms, Executive Director, Office of Asset Enterprise Management, US Department of Veterans Affairs. “The collaboration on this project was outstanding and enabled success. Finding a way to replicate that collaboration with partners in other parts of the country, while maintaining that local, state and national connection, sets a new precedent for projects of this nature.”
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 from Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, Federal and State Historic Tax Credits, grants, fundraising and other soft financing options.
“It is our never-ending obligation as a state and a nation to support our outstanding veterans who have served with honor and courage,” said Joaquín Altoro, CEO of WHEDA. “It has been gratifying and wonderful to work with The Alexander Company and its partners on the Soldier’s Home project with our housing tax credits and financing. Our collaborative efforts will help house and support our hometown heroes with stable, affordable housing.”
The preservation and restoration story of the Milwaukee Soldiers Home is one of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles through perseverance, teamwork and creativity. Just as it did when it was developed more than 150 years ago, the Soldiers Home today is poised to change the face of veteran care, serving as a replicable example of what is possible through innovative partnerships.
“It is so fitting that not only do we have an incredible historic preservation project here, but we have a living tribute to Veterans,” added Mayor Barrett.“Providing decent housing and wraparound care for veterans is something that all of us are committed to.”
- First Veteran residents move into Old Main as the Soldiers Home Campus leases half of its housing space
- Inside the restoration of Old Main: From Civil War Era care facility to a new home for Milwaukee veterans
- Every Hero Deserves a Home: Redevelopment begins on the Milwaukee VA’s historic Old Main
- 360° Inside Old Main: A special VR walkthrough as the Soldiers Home prepares for revitalization
- Photo Essay: Inside the decay of Old Main before its restoration
- Photo Essay: Old Main to be Soldiers Home once again
- Sentinel from 1903 remains on guard over Milwaukee’s fallen soldiers and sailors