Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Old Main Veteran homeless housing project on track
Old Main is looking younger these days.
Since the project to renovate the original Soldiers Home began in September, work has continued unabated through the winter and into the current pandemic.
Construction was deemed an essential business under Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order, so crews have been able to continue working.
The project includes a combination of one- and two-bedroom apartments for homeless Veterans. It is scheduled for completion in mid-February 2021, and officials said the project should be completed on time.
“The work is all on schedule and on budget,” said Jonathan Beck, project manager with The Alexander Company, which has partnered with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee to lead the project.
Jerry Woznicki, senior superintendent with general contractor J.P. Cullen, agreed.
“It’s going good,” he said. “We’ve gone through the demolition phase and are now building it back up. It’s been a pleasure working here.”
Some of the scaffolding that has encompassed the 130,000-square-foot building has already come down in sections -- particularly on the south side -- where crews have finished restoring windows and trim and repairing masonry on the exterior.
Woznicki said the roofing is about 60% to 70% complete.
Inside, installation of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems is underway.
“They’re framing new apartments on the ground and first floors, restoring wood flooring and plaster walls and event wainscoting in several apartments,” according to Kendra Bishop, director of marketing and public relations with The Alexander Company.
Next steps will include continued work on the interior, including drywall and installing finishes.
Beck said there haven’t been any major surprises as the project has progressed.
“With any old building, we always plan for contingencies,” he said. “We’ve had a few years in that building, so we planned accordingly.”
The Alexander Co., based in Madison, specializes in the rehabilitation of historic structures and has undertaken similar projects throughout the country.
“This one is in our backyard,” Beck said.
The project is scheduled for completion in mid-February 2021, and officials said the project should be completed on time.
Working during the coronavirus outbreak has forced some changes, Woznicki said.
There used to be one big breakroom on site, but that was divided into smaller rooms to help maintain social distancing, he said.
More wash stations were added, and cleaning of the breakrooms and the portable toilets has increased.
The $40 million project official broke ground Sept. 20, 2019, after many years of planning and negotiating.
Opened in 1867, Old Main is one of the three original Soldiers Homes established in the United States after the Civil War to provide homes for disabled Veterans.
As the Milwaukee campus grew and new facilities were constructed, Old Main and other older buildings fell into disuse and disrepair. In 1989, the building was shuttered, except for some minimal use by Milwaukee VA researchers.
But a movement to save and restore the building began in the early 2000s after a group of Veterans blocked plans to raze the campus’ old buildings.
That led to the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance getting involved, and in 2011 the campus was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Public awareness and fundraising campaigns followed, and a multi-pronged renovation plan came together. In all, six buildings are being renovated, including the Administration Building (Building 1), the former Catholic Chaplain’s Quarters (Building 14) and three former private homes (Buildings 18, 19 and 62).
Funding is from a variety of sources, including federal affordable housing tax credits, state and federal historic preservation tax credits, military construction funding, the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp., the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. and other federal, state and local sources, grants and donations.
When completed, Old Main will be returned to its original purpose – housing for veterans, particularly those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
The facility will feature 72 one-bedroom and eight two-bedroom apartment units. Amenities will include community spaces, resource centers, a fitness area and offices for building management, home health care and counseling.
The Administration Building will be converted into single-room units, able to house 14 Veterans and their families. The Catholic Chaplain’s Quarters will remain a single-family home while the other houses will be converted into three-bedroom duplexes.
In all, the project will result in 101 housing units for veterans in need.