Urban spelunking: The National Soldiers Home Historic District
"Somebody told me that out near the stadium there's like an old Civil War town or something. Is that true?"
A friend of mine who is very knowledgeable about Milwaukee and has lived here nearly his entire life asked me that when I mentioned I was taking a tour of the park-like grounds recently.
It's amazing how close, and yet how unknown and misunderstood, the old Soldiers Home on the Veterans Administration grounds – which is also home to Wood National Cemetery – still is to many Milwaukeeans.
Since the 1860s, the Soldiers Home has offered services to area veterans – starting with, of course, Civil War veterans. Though it isn't the oldest building in the complex, the Gothic Revival-style Old Main, with its soaring tower and its hilltop setting, is the most recognizable. You can see it from the freeway, for years it took center stage out over the outfield walls at County Stadium and it's visible from Miller Park, too.
"It's really common and i'm really even guilty of it," says Megan Daniels, author of "Milwaukee's Early Architecture" and a member of Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, who strolled the grounds of the Soldiers Home recently, along with me, Dawn McCarthy, president of the Alliance, and Elizabeth Hummitzsch, who is working to spread the word about preservation efforts at the site.
"After the roof collapsed; that's when I first actually came out here to see it. You can see the tower from the freeway, and it's always like, 'what is that, what's going on over there? It looks really interesting.' But it's kind of lost out here."
Hummitzsch, who works for Mueller Communications, agrees.
"That is certainly part of the struggle and I know that's part of MPA's goal is to really let people know that this is here. You can come out here and walk around and take in these buildings."
The oldest section of the complex, where Old Main – designed by Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix and constructed in 1869 – is located, is an incredible small-town-like collection of buildings that includes a hospital, a library, a barracks, Victorian homes that hosted chaplains, administrators and surgeons, a governor's residence, a social hall (with a bowling alley), a fire engine house and other structures. Most were constructed with cream city brick.
The MPA is currently focused on the stabilization of three structures:
Old Main – which was used for veteran housing through the 1970s and in more recent years had a Medical College of Wisconsin crash lab – and two buildings designed by German immigrant, Civil War veteran and landmark Milwaukee architect Henry C. Koch: the Ward Theater and the chapel.
Koch, who designed City Hall, Turner Hall, Gesu Church, The Pfister Hotel and other instantly recognizable Milwaukee buildings, contributed two stunning works to the complex.
The 1889 non-denominational chapel has an entirely wooden facade. Its 7,000 square feet could hold 600 worshippers and it is among the earliest such facility on federal land and likely the first in the state.
The white "shingle style" structure has a heavy, imposing tower, and a facade that is decorated with an astonishing array of wood details. It's been closed since the 1990s and it looks like it. Inside the chain link fence encircling the chapel, the exterior paint is peeling and for our own safety we're not even allowed inside, where, Hummitzsch says, there is water damage and leaking.
According to their website The Kubala Washatko Architects are working with The Soldiers Home Foundation to restore the building and reopen it "for veteran use and funerals, as well as VA and visiting chaplain use, historic displays, weddings and other ceremonies, and multi-denominational, patriotic, and educational community events."
"There will hopefully be some work going on there in the coming months," says Hummitzsch.
The whole site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but The Ward Theater, constructed in 1881, is listed individually on the register, too. It's easy to see why. Koch's Victorian Gothic style building has an ornate wooden porch wrapped around a cream city brick building with red brick decoration and lovely details.
One such detail, a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant executed in stained glass has been removed to safety while work takes place to stabilize the building in preparation for renovations.
Over the years, stars like Bob Hope, Liberace, George Burns, Nat King Cole, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers and Ethel Merman performed at The Ward, which across the decades staged vaudeville, variety and minstrel shows, among other events. The building also served as a place of worship, had a restaurant and a post office, and sold tickets for the rail line that ran right past it (and is now a paved path that is part of the Hank Aaron Trail).
Like The Ward, Old Main has been closed for a couple years. I was in Old Main briefly a few years back, but regret not seeing The Ward at that time. Now, both are off limits except to hard-hatted workers.
Old Main suffered a roof collapse in January 2011 and the Ward has damage, too.
"That was a lot of what spurred doing all this." says Daniels, "because it (would) stay open the rest of that winter, and all of 2012."
Work is now underway to make all three buildings watertight, and at the same time, MPA and Mueller Communications is working with the VA to spread the word about these historical and architectural treasures.
"The VA is responsible for upkeep these two buildings," says Hummitzsch. "So we've been working in partnership with them, with some groups of veterans and other stakeholders in the area to talk about how we might be able to restore these buildings, not just because they're pretty – although they are – but also to reuse them for their original purpose which was to serve veterans. That's the conversation that's going on with the VA."
"Their primary mission is veteran health care," adds McCarthy. "That is their job and so the idea of restoration ... it's sort of like, 'it's not ours to consider.'"
McCarthy and MPA have worked hard to raise awareness and have gotten some help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In June 2011, the Trust named the National Soldiers Home Historic District one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The organization's president Stephanie Meeks said at the time that the district, "represents one of our nation's first efforts to provide veterans with the benefits they deserve. ... Today we ask that the place called home by veterans who have served in every American conflict since the Civil War receive similar respect."
Last month, the National Trust designated the Soldiers Home a national treasure, driving even more attention to these threatened buildings.
"The National Trust is involved, we're involved, the State Historic Preservation Office to commingle the VA's efforts to serve veterans and our interest to reuse existing and historic and gorgeous buildings to do so," says Daniels.
According to McCarthy, no fundraising has yet begun, but the recognition from the National Trust sets the stage for that to get underway.
"The phase that we're in right now is really trying to determine what these buildings could be used for," says Hummitzsch, "what needs are there that currently aren't being met for veterans and how might we be able to fulfill those needs in these buildings. That's a lot of the conversation that the MPA and the National Trust has been leading. So that when we get to the point of fundraising we can say, 'here's what we're fundraising for.'
"A lot of it is initial conversations and creating relationships with the VA and creating a partnership. These are their buildings; they have to be at the table. And they've stepped up to repair these buildings to make sure there's no further damage happening as we continue the conversation. So we've been really happy with these recent developments that are really starting to protect the buildings."
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