Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Inside The Soldiers Home Redevelopment

See inside and learn the story of how a crumbling, Civil War-era complex was saved.

By - May 27th, 2021 05:10 pm
A tenant lounge at Old Main. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A tenant lounge at Old Main. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Old Main at Soldiers Home is once again a home for military veterans.

The Alexander Company held a ceremonial grand opening of the redeveloped building on Thursday morning, just in time for Memorial Day. The first residents, all individuals who were either homeless or at risk to become so, moved into the 101 apartments in early March.

Originally completed in 1869 to support soldiers returning after the Civil War, much of the Soldiers Home complex has been vacant for decades. The cream city brick buildings cover a several-hundred-acre campus located just north of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Clement Zablocki Medical Center at 5000 W. National Ave.

In 2011 Old Main, the complex’s central building, was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation‘s list of the 11 most endangered historic buildings in America. It had been vacant since 1989.

“That really brought pressure on the VA to see these buildings turned around,” said Jonathan Beck of the Alexander Co. during a tour of the redeveloped building. But the solution to save the building and a series of others wasn’t obvious. Alexander joined a coalition that included the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and Mueller Communications with a focus on raising awareness, finding seed funding and identifying a long-term use for the structure.

By the time construction started in 2019, things had reached a critical state. “Old Main could not have survived another winter,” said Back. “It would have been rubble.” The tower, visible from Interstate 94 and American Family Field, was covered in netting to catch falling bricks.

But following the building’s addition to the infamous list of endangered structures, a series of financing tools became available. The state boosted its historic preservation tax credit to 20% of applicable project costs, matching a federal credit. It also launched a non-competitive 4% low-income housing tax credit program to match the 9%, competitive federal program it administers. By 2016, Alexander Company became actively involved in trying to redevelop the building and five others into housing.

What resulted was a $43.8 million project — with 13 layers of financing.

Alexander secured two different sets of low-income housing tax credits (nine percent and four percent), state and federal historic preservation tax credits, $2.5 million from a fundraising campaign led by the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, $500,000 from the Home Depot Foundation, including $100,000 in gift cards, $200,000 from project general contractor J.P. Cullen, a military construction loan, $600,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, $375,000 from the city’s Housing Trust Fund, an approximately $1.5 million loan from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) and a $547,000 loan from the Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation to pull off the deal.

“This was beyond challenging,” said Beck. He previously told Urban Milwaukee that he believes the combination of the two different low-income housing tax credits with historic preservation tax credits is a first in the country.

“Never have we taken on something so sacred as Soldiers’ Home,” said firm president Joe Alexander during the September 2019 groundbreaking. On Thursday he returned to announce the project was completed on time and on budget.

“For years this project has been a labor of love in so many communities,” said the Madison-based developer to a crowd of project partners.

The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee will manage the buildings in partnership with Alexander. Five caseworkers now operate out of the first floor of Old Main, providing wraparound services including job training and support to access government services. Approximately 30,000 square feet of space is set aside for the wraparound effort, a mixture of classrooms, lounges and offices.

The upper floors of Old Main include 80 apartments, almost all of which are one-bedroom units. Females have the option to live in their own wing. “We are able to provide that additional security if they want,” said Beck.

Each floor of the narrow tower has become a lounge space for residents, part of a focus on getting veterans into communal settings. The upper floors feature large windows with views of American Family Field and much of the city.

The trunk of a tree that was cut down behind Old Main now finds itself interspersed in all of the lounge spaces. “We thought it was really beautiful and a similar age as the building,” said Beck of the inspiration to preserve it as a series of tables.

Approximately 600 windows were restored, in accordance with National Park Service standards, as well as original wood floors and World War II-era terrazzo floors. The walls are lined with 250 pieces of original art from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. A hallway on the ground floor, shielded from natural light, is lined with World War I and II recruitment prints from the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. A building history center, funded by philanthropist and architect David Uihlein, is located just off the tenant entryway.

But Old Main is not the only building that was saved.

The former administration building now includes 14 furnished, single-room-occupancy units, with shared bathrooms and a kitchen. The mailroom on the building’s first floor was restored and now serves as a dining room for tenants.

Three duplexes and the former chaplain’s residence were also restored and now collectively house one four-bedroom units and six three-bedroom units targeted at families.

All of the units are rented at below-market rates through the low-income housing tax credit program. Rents are set to be no more than 30% of a tenant’s income.

Alexander, which specializes in large redevelopment projects, is leasing the properties for 75 years from the VA.

And while there is much to celebrate in this redevelopment, plenty of work on the larger campus remains to be done. Alexander, project general contractor J.P. Cullen and others are providing support to the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance’s effort to save additional buildings including Ward Memorial Hall and the chapel. Beck estimated that the effort will take years and at least $20 million.

Old Main

Administration Building

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