By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 11, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

Three years ago veterans housing opened in a pair of buildings at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center’s National Soldiers Home site, creating 101 permanent supportive and affordable apartments for veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and their families.

East facade.
south side
The south facade.

In addition to being an asset to those who served, the $44 million project, led by a partnership that included Madison’s The Alexander Company, also buffed up two beautiful historic buildings that had been growing ever-more endangered, one of them being the iconic Old Main, designed by architect Edward Townsend Mix.

It was recently announced that another Mix-designed building on the grounds – the 1868 Governor’s Mansion – and two buildings designed by Henry C. Koch (who drew Milwaukee’s City Hall, Turner Hall, Golda Meir School, The Pfister Hotel, Gesu Church and other landmarks) will be restored next as part of a partnership between The Alexander Company and the Center for Veterans Issues, who are leasing the buildings from the VA for 75 years.


One of those is the gorgeous 1881 Ward Memorial Theater and the other a Shingle Style chapel, from 1889, which is rather unique among Koch’s designs, which tended to be executed in masonry.

This next phase of the project is as exciting as the previous one because the buildings are among the most beautiful in the area and because they will again be put to the service of veterans.

The Milwaukee Soldiers Home opened in 1867 and it is a National Historic Landmark, one of just three original soldiers homes in the U.S., created by President Abraham Lincoln.

north porch
North porch.

The structures will be rehabbed to create community space and support services for veterans with partners including The Center for Veterans Issues, the Wisconsin Veterans Network, Journey to the Light Ministries and Feast of Crispian.

Tower details
Tower details.
tower detailsX

You can read more about the plan here.

Because of the nature of the chapel’s construction – wood frame instead of masonry – the clock seemed to be ticking especially quickly for its survival. You just have to walk around its fenced exterior to see the wear and tear that years of vacancy and Wisconsin weather have partnered to inflict on the building.

“It was going to get worse and worse,” said The Alexander Company’s Jonathan Beck, as we stood inside recently. “We did a wood frame construction project like this out in Silver Spring, Maryland and some of those buildings were left open to the elements too long, and I think in retrospect that was almost past the point of no return.


“We don't think that this is at that point yet, but it's probably going to have to make it through another winter and we'll probably have to tarp where the cupola came off and make sure that no further damage is done through one more winter. I think now is the time on this. We want to get this going.”

The chapel, once work is complete, will once again serve as a nondenominational worship space, but it will have other uses, too, says Beck. Some of those uses could include a conference facility for training and mental health sessions, as well as an event venue for banquets, meetings and more.

“We are doing a study right now with a group called Historic Theater Consultants out of Tucson,” Beck says. “They worked on the West Bend Theater and this fellow Herb Stratford came and spoke at the Wisconsin Trust (for Historic Preservation) conference on historic theaters. He has worked on 500 theaters around the country over the past 30 years.

The ceiling at the transept.

“So we asked him to do a study to back up our numbers on how this should be programmed along with the Ward Memorial Theater, and we'll have that at the end of the month so we’ll know all these different user groups, what's the best way to bring them in and manage it and then staff it.”

Once the work is completed, one of the more unique structures by one of the city’s most important architects will be preserved for future generations.

According to the district’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form, “In 1889, Henry C. Koch was awarded the contract for the construction of a frame chapel (Building 12). The chapel was funded from the Post Fund, an amount accumulated from sales of products made or grown at the branch and from sales at the Home Store and to be used for the benefit of the members. The Board was not allowed to support religious activities or structures with congressionally appropriated funds.”


By this time, Koch had already had numerous of his designs built at the Soldiers Home, including Ward Memorial Hall (1881), a hospital building (1879) and barracks buildings (1884, 1888) and still others would be erected after the chapel. The 1887 Surgeon and Adjutant's Quarters may also have been his work.

“The design of the quarters may be attributed to Henry C. Koch in the similarity between the Shingle Style massing of the quarters and that of the chapel,” the form notes.

Koch was a natural choice to work on the Milwaukee Soldiers Home during this period. Not only was he among the premier architects in the city with experience designing churches, schools and a variety of public buildings, he was also a veteran himself, having served in the Civil War, working much of the time drawing important maps for Gen. Philip Sheridan.

The nave.

The architect was also active in a number of veterans organizations. In addition to co-founding the Wolcott Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1880, Koch was among the organizers of the state Grand Army reunion in Milwaukee in 1880 and the national encampment here nine years later.


It’s unclear if any other architects were given the opportunity to submit potential designs for the chapel, but by the start of April 1889, newspapers reported that Koch had completed his plans for the chapel, which was expected to cost $7,500 to build.

Three days later, the papers carried a notice seeking bids from contractors for the chapel.

“Sealed proposals for the erection of the Chapel to be erected on the premises of the N.H. for D.V.S. near the city of Milwaukee, will be received at the office of H.C. Koch & Co., New Insurance Building, in said city, until 10 o’clock A.M. April 11 1889, at whose office the plans and specifications can be seen. The right is reserved to accept any or reject all bids. Jacob Sharpe, Governor N.H. for D.V.S.”

Koch’s office – located in what is now home to the Hilton Garden Inn on Broadway – must have been a bustling place, juggling numerous projects at once. For example, while planning for the chapel was underway, Koch was also working on designs for a number of school buildings – including the Sixth Ward School (aka Golda Meir), which he would ultimately design – as well as The Pfister Hotel, among others.

services signX

Perhaps amazingly, on Sept. 23, the Journal could report that, “The first religious services in the new chapel at the Soldiers’ home were held yesterday and were largely attended. Mass was celebrated in the morning by Rev. Father Victor Gadden and a sermon was preached in the afternoon by Chaplain Dean Richmond Babbitt.”

On Nov. 8, the same paper reported that, Mr. Clinton M. Todd and Miss Margaret Arnold were married last night at the Soldiers’ Home chapel by the Rev. Babbitt, this being the first wedding in the new church.”

Steps up
The ladder/steps up to the tower.

The chapel Koich designed is the gem of the northern end of the Soldiers Home district, where much of the structures were Koch’s work. It seems hard to imagine it was built in less than five months’ time.

The cross-shaped chapel, the nomination form says, “has elements of the Queen Anne style in its asymmetrically-placed turreted tower, but is predominantly done in the Shingle Style characterized by the broad mass of the roof, the grid-like arrangement of the windows, and the contrasting patterns of wood siding and shingles.

“A small one-story sacristy wing with a Swedish gambrel roof forms the west facade. The most prominent feature is the attached steeple and bell tower at the southeast corner.”

Of course, the tower with its dormers, turret and pyramidal roof, is the most recognizable feature, but up close the exterior woodwork is eye-catching.

“The building is sided with a combination of clapboards and shingles,” the form explains. “At the base of the building below the windowsill are shingles cut in saw-toothed and scallop-edged patterns. Above this is a section of narrow width clapboards that continue to the window heads. Above this band are more shingles. At the gable ends of the transepts the stained-glass windows are flanked by flared, shed extensions of the wall shingling with a simple molding beneath.


“The main entrance at the northeast corner has a small gable roof. The gable end has fish-scale and saw-tooth shingle facing. Large scroll carved brackets with holes pierced in them support the lower ends of the eaves.”

Inside, there are two rows of columns that sprout arches supporting the roof above the nave, which has an altar at the front – framed by a detailed molding – and area for the organ and pipes to the left, sectioned off by a low, curved wall.


Lights are suspended from the ceiling by chains, and each of the openings is filled with stained glass windows, most of which include details on who paid for them or in whose honor they were donated.

Remnants of an earlier painted wall design.

The interior looks mostly whitewashed today but get up close and you can see the faded remnants of a much more colorful and intricate painted detail. Some research has been done on this paint and it’s possible it could be restored.

Behind the chancel is a two-room sacristy.

This is resting on the floor in the sacristy.

Asking to see the tower, I head to the small lobby inside the south entrance where behind a door I’m confronted with a very steep ladder-like staircase, which I climb to the first level of the tower. Here, through some missing boards in the ceiling of the nave, I can see down into the sanctuary.

Looking down into the nave.

Up another staircase I’m in a more or less identical space but one where the windows aren’t transparent, but opaque colored glass.

There’s another staircase that leads up to yet another level, but there are no windows up there, only darkness, and I’ve noticed the tower seems to shift noticeably when I walk and when the wind blows outside, so choosing safety first I head back down rather than climbing.


Now that I know this will all be restored, I decide I can wait until the work is done to go all the way to the top.

But it’s more than that possibility that has me excited about the new plan.

I’m thrilled that this – surely to be counted among the most threatened landmarks in the area – will not only be restored, but like Old Main and the Headquarters Building (which could be a Koch design, though it is not definitively attributed), will be put back to its original use for its original intended audience: veterans.

The sacristy.
sacristy detailX

Interestingly, part of the reason it took so long to get this work kickstarted, says Beck, is that until recently, “it was going to be nearly impossible to get these buildings done. We knew that we could get money for housing because of the history, and then because of the way that the enhanced use lease rules were set up at that time to get that done.

“We always knew that these buildings would be next, but there would still be an enormous funding gap.”

That funding gap is what stymied previous efforts to restore these structures, including one effort by the Soldiers Home Foundation in 2018. More recently, Alexander looked at the buildings again, too.

“In 2021, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance reached out to us, a couple of architects and (contractor JP) Cullen, and we put together a team in order to do a study for the VA,” Beck adds.

“MPA got some money from the National Trust to put together a feasibility study. When we did it, we thought it would be $25 million to restore all three buildings, and we could bring in 10 million with the tax credits and various grants, but there was still going to be a $15 million gap that you'd have to go to the community to try to raise. It's going to be impossible.”

But, then, the VA secured PACT Act funding, which was passed in 2022 and aimed at helping to expand VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxic substances.


“It's the first of the PACT Act dollars to move into a project,” Beck says. “This really just wouldn't have happened without those dollars. It would've been impossible until 2022 when those funds were available.

“And we would not have even been here if we could not have done those buildings (Old Main and the Administration/Headquarters Building),” he adds. “And we wouldn't have been able to do those buildings without the state historic tax credits. So there's almost been perfect timing.

"We're like, ‘oh, well this should have been done 10 years ago, 15 years ago,’ but you wouldn't have had the economic development tools that you needed until now to make it. So it's strange how well-timed these tools have become available.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.