Old Main to become housing for homeless Veterans - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Old Main to become housing for homeless Veterans

Medal of Honor recipient Gary Wetzel adresses the audience

Medal of Honor recipient Gary Wetzel talked about the historic significance of the project. Medical center director Dan Zomchek (left), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (center) and Joseph Galvan of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development also were among the speakers (photo by Benjamin Slane).

By Jim Hoehn
Thursday, October 10, 2019

The iconic building known as Old Main on the historic Milwaukee VA campus moved a step closer toward once again fulfilling its original mission of caring for Veterans.

Old Main, constructed in 1867, and five other historic buildings at the Milwaukee VA, are being converted to housing for homeless or at-risk Veterans and their families.

A ceremony marking the major remodeling project took place Sept. 20, with Old Main as the picturesque backdrop. It included elected officials, historical preservationists and Veterans Affairs leadership.

The event signaled the official start of the project that will provide 101 housing units, as well as supportive services, through an Enhanced Use Lease agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Alexander Company, and Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee.

Speakers at the Sept. 20 event included Dr. Dan Zomchek, director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center; Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers; Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; Sen. Tammy Baldwin; Army Veteran Gary Wetzel, recipient of the Medal of Honor; and Joe Alexander, president of the Alexander Company.

“The Alexander Company has been privileged to take on redevelopments of train stations where loved ones were sent to war, a private school that trained young women to go to Ivy League colleges, and even a former hotel that sported an arrow on the roof to guide Amelia Earhart,” Alexander said. “But never have we taken on anything so sacred as this historic campus.”

The historic Old Main building provided the backdrop for the event

Old Main will be renovated into 72 one-bedroom, and eight two-bedroom units as part of the $44 million project (photo by Benjamin Slane).

Old Main will be renovated into 72 one-bedroom, and eight two-bedroom units as part of the $44 million project. The revamp is scheduled to be completed by late fall 2020. The original Administration Building, including the historic first-floor post office, will provide 14 housing units, as well as community space and supportive program offices. The former Catholic Chaplain’s Quarters will remain a single-family home, while three private homes that formerly housed staff and their families, will be restored as duplexes.

Photo Gallery - View more photos from the Soldiers Home Project ceremony in our flickr album

In addition to preserving the historic buildings, The Soldiers Home project will allow Veterans easy access to the complete spectrum of health care offered at the Milwaukee VA.

“The ability for us to have such close proximity for these at-risk, vulnerable Veterans, to not only have housing, but access to the plethora of services that we have, from mental health and primary care, and surgery, is really unparalleled,” Zomchek said. “This is really going to make a meaningful difference in scores and scores of our Veterans.”

Barrett said he grew up about a mile north of the VA complex and his father worked a mile south. He reminisced about driving through the quiet, picturesque grounds as a boy, describing it as a Norman Rockwell-like setting.

Barrett’s hometown pride was evident as he praised the multilevel cooperation and years of effort to make the project a reality.

“Everybody came together because this is the right thing to do for our Veterans, and it is the right thing to do for this hallowed ground,” Barrett said. “This is what this is all about. It’s all about this peaceful place, to pay tribute to the men and women who put their lives on the line for our freedoms.”

Overlay of aerial photo showing which buildings will be renovated in the project

Six buildings – including Old Main (Bldg 2), the most prominent and recognizable building on the campus, the Administration Building (Bldg 1), the Catholic Chaplain’s Quarters (Bldg 14) and three duplexes (Bldgs 18, 19 and 62) – will be renovated into a total of 101 housing units (photo by Matthew Gilson Photography).

Wetzel, who was a door gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam, was critically wounded when the aircraft was trapped in a landing zone. Despite his numerous wounds, which eventually led to the amputation of his left arm, Wetzel returned to his position and helped stave off the enemy until they could be rescued.

Wetzel, who said he had been coming to the Milwaukee VA for more than half a century, reminded those in attendance that they were a part of history.

“I think about the men that got healed in this hospital, and I also think about the men that didn’t survive and are buried here in our cemetery, and there’s a bunch there that I know,” he said.

“It’s going to give a Veteran a new lease on life and let them know that people like us, we care for them,” Wetzel said. “We love them for what they did, they took an oath for the flag of our country.”

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