Milwaukee VA Medical Center
'Wonderful to see': Community celebrates Old Main
A rebirth some 10 years in the making was celebrated Thursday as the restored Soldiers Home on the Milwaukee VA campus was dedicated.
“It is wonderful to see these buildings so lovingly restored and returned to their original mission,” said Jim McClain, deputy director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
McLain was joined by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and others in celebrating the completion of the project, which now houses Veterans who were either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Originally built in 1867 to house and care for Civil War Veterans, the main building – known to many as “Old Main” – was one of the original three Soldiers Homes in the nation.
It served its purpose well into the 20th century, but fell into disrepair over the years and was shuttered in 1989.
But thanks to what McLain referred to as a “Herculean effort” by numerous community partners, the restoration project was launched in 2011. The next eight years were consumed by fundraising, logistical maneuvering and planning.
The Alexander Co. was tapped in 2016 to lead the renovation effort, and ground was broken in September 2019.
In March of 2021, the first Veterans moved in, and Old Main was returned to its intended purpose.
“Over the years, there have been naysayers … who said this would never be done,” Barrett said. “But we knew we could do it.”
Noting the initial fundraising efforts in the 1860s by a group of Milwaukee women that helped fund the original building, Barrett said the sacrifices made then have been honored by the completed restoration project.
“I honestly cannot think of a more extraordinary and meaningful historic preservation project in this community in the last generation,” he said.
Joe Alexander, president of Alexander Co., lauded the “transformation of this historic icon,” calling the project a “labor of love for so many in our community. … I can’t think of a better cause to align with. This project is a shining example of what can happen when partners come together.”
While Old Main is the centerpiece, the project encompassed six buildings on the campus, including the former Administration Building (Building 1), three duplexes and a single-family home, all of which had been closed for more than 40 years.
They now serve as permanent housing for Veterans, with rents fixed at 30 percent of a tenant’s income. The HUD-VASH program helps Veterans enroll for an apartment in the Soldiers Home, while the Center for Veterans Issues acts as the buildings’ landlord.
Eduardo Garza Jr., president of CVI, was on hand when the first Veterans moved in two months ago and has seen the sense of pride their new home inspires.
He said many Veterans moving in reacted with “a sense of disbelief… to be living in such a beautiful place -- mainly because some of them have never been able to live in something like this that they could call home.
“We're grateful for the opportunity to rebuild the lives of Veterans and their families who once thought they would not see a place for them to call home. … The reopening of the Soldiers Home has created a new start for many of our Veterans and their families.”
But the buildings are more than just living space. The Veterans can work with on-site social workers and have access to programs and facilities ranging from job training and education to recreation and wellness programs.
“It is so fitting that not only do we have an incredible historic preservation project here, but we have a living tribute to Veterans,” Barrett said. “Providing decent housing and wraparound care for veterans is something that all of us are committed to.
“We are so thankful to … all the individuals who did the work here to preserve this and to make it something that for centuries to come people will enjoy.”
Many of the dignitaries at the event noted the Milwaukee community’s strong support of Veterans, noting that the project’s success was symbolic of that.
“As we draw near Memorial Day, let's take a moment to reflect with pride about the strong sense of dedication our community has serving America's Veterans,” McLain said. “The proof of this commitment lies no further away than these glorious 150-years-young buildings.”