Six buildings on the historic Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus have been restored as housing for veterans and their families, marking the completion of a decade-long project.
Rehabilitated by The Alexander Co., the buildings offer 101 permanent supportive housing units for veterans who were homeless or at risk of homelessness.
“This incredible preservation success demonstrates the benefits of historic restoration and what can be achieved through a successful public-private partnership,” said Joe Alexander, president of the Alexander Co. “It serves as proof that strategic partnerships, visionary leadership, and creative funding cannot just save buildings but tackle homelessness, ignite a community, and serve as a national model.”
Established in 1867 after the Civil War, the Milwaukee Soldiers Home is one of three original Soldiers Homes in the country, with some of the oldest and most historic buildings in the Veterans Affairs (VA) system. It is one of only 43 national historic landmarks in Wisconsin and one of Wisconsin’s most historic assets. However, after years of service housing veterans, buildings on the Soldiers Home campus were vacated more than 30 years ago and subsequently fell into disrepair.
The restoration project began in 2011 when the Milwaukee Soldiers Home Landmark District was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's (NTHP’s) list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Following this announcement, the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and the NTHP joined together to form the Milwaukee Soldiers Home Community Advisory Council. The Alexander Co. joined the Council, alongside other groups to explore the protection and rehabilitation of the landmark.
In 2016, The Alexander Co. responded to requests from the VA seeking developers interested in rehabilitating the campus’ six unused historic buildings using an enhanced-use lease agreement. The Wisconsin-based firm and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM) were selected to lead a team for the ambitious project.
The restoration of the iconic Old Main building created 80 one- and two-bedroom apartment units that provide permanent housing and wraparound support services for veterans and their families. The administration building, which has been converted into single-room occupancy units, offers common kitchen, dining, community, and living rooms. Several duplexes on the grounds have also been restored.
Many of the buildings’ original features were restored and decorated with a mix of modern and historic design elements. Among the restored architecture, residents and visitors will find Old Main’s iconic gothic windows and historic grand entrance brought back to life, alongside refinished wood and terrazzo floors and decorative tin ceiling tiles. Crucial updates to the buildings’ infrastructures, including plumbing, electrical, and paint removal, laid the groundwork for the architects to equip spaces with accessible entrances and community areas.
Over 175 pieces of artwork will be on display as part of the buildings’ permanent furnishings, all curated by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, with all selections either from Wisconsin veteran archival collections or featuring Wisconsin veteran stories. Artwork and artifacts also will be featured in the building’s History Center to honor and celebrate stories from the original veteran residents.
The $44 million project utilized multiple funding sources, including 9% and 4% low-income housing tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits, grants, fundraising, and other soft financing options. National Equity Fund invested in the federal credits, and U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corp. invested in the state credits.
Residents have access to a range of supportive services provided on site by the Milwaukee VA Medical Center’s HUD-VASH (Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing) program, said officials.
“This project shows it takes a village to raise a village,” said Tony Pérez, secretary and executive director of HACM. “The intentionality of the VA, the commitment of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a combined 90 years of real estate and property experience to lead the restoration project, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, mayor [Tom] Barrett’s support, and the involvement of investors, philanthropic-minded corporations, and individuals are what made the preservation of Soldiers Home possible.”