Old Main renovation nears completion - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center

 

Old Main renovation nears completion

Old Main interior

The renovation of Old Main is nearing completion. Local media toured the project on Thursday, Oct. 29.

By David Walter
Friday, October 30, 2020

“On time and on budget.”

That’s the latest on the project to renovate Old Main – aka the Soldiers Home – into housing for homeless Veterans.

Alexander Co., which is overseeing the project on the Milwaukee VA Medical Center campus, hosted a media tour of Old Main and the adjacent Administration Building on Thursday, Oct. 29, where officials announced that the project is on track for completion in February.

The project began a little over a year ago with a ceremony attended by local, state and federal officials. While a similar ceremony to celebrate its completion will be difficult given COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, developers were happy to show off the project.

At the end of the tour, JP Cullen, the main contractor on the project, presented a check for $40,000 to the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, which is spearheading the $44.5 million renovation project.

old main check
Shannon Metoxen, left, from JP Cullen, presents a check to Peter Zanghi of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance after a tour of the Old Main renovation project.

“We’re excited,” said Joe Alexander, president of Alexander Co. “A lot came together to make this job happen, and we’re going to be on time and on budget.”

“We’re thrilled to be able to give back to the community and support the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance,” said Shannon Metoxen, Milwaukee division manager for JP Cullen after presenting the check to Peter Zanghi, president of the Alliance. “We’re honored to be able to give back to those in need, specifically our soldiers and vets.”

The project includes six buildings on the campus, including Old Main and the Administration Building.

Upon completion, Old Main 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.

“To see it come alive again is amazing,” said Christina Orr, assistant director of the Milwaukee VA. “This speaks to the mission of the VA: Putting our Veterans first.”

Old Main admin building
Christina Orr, assistant director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, tours a room in the Administration Building on the VA campus.

During renovation, every effort has been made to either retain and refurbish original materials or to replace with in-kind updates, Alexander said.

“Almost everything is original. If not, it was recreated,” he said.

The slate roof was replaced with slate quarried and shipped from Vermont, while the copper shingles were also replaced with modern facsimiles.

The windows were restored with new glass, and brick patterns in the plaster were recreated.

“It turned out fabulous,” said Jerry Woznicki, senior superintendent with JP Cullen, noting that the building has 688 openings that had to be addressed.

Seeing the building restored and only months away from again serving Veterans is gratifying to Zanghi.

“(This project) has been almost a decade in the making,” he said. “We’re really excited for the Soldiers Home to be called home once again for Veterans.”

Old main tower room

Joe Alexander, left, president of Alexander Co., shows one of the rooms on an upper floor of the tower of Old Main during a tour for media Thursday, Oct. 29.

Opened in 1867, Old Main is one of the three original Soldiers Homes established by President Abraham Lincoln 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.

old main hallway
A hallway inside Old Main is shown.

That led to the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance getting involved, and in 2011 the campus was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

“It’s such a gorgeous building,” Zanghi said, noting that Old Main was specifically built on the highest point on the campus.

“From the very beginning, when soldiers were returning from the Civil War, we gave them this honor of giving them such a special place. It acts as the focal point. No matter where you are on the grounds, Old Main is the centerpiece.”

“It’s going to offer hope,” Orr said. “It’s going to help people get better. It will help them regain who they are and help them be the best they can be.”

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