Jeramey Jannene

See Inside 3 Buildings For Civil War Veterans That Will Be Saved

Chapel, theater and mansion will provide supportive services for veterans.

By - May 23rd, 2024 06:01 pm
Ward Memorial Hall theater at Soldiers Home. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Ward Memorial Hall theater at Soldiers Home. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Three long-vacant buildings constructed for returning Civil War veterans will soon see new life.

As part of a $24.6 million project, The Alexander Company hopes to begin construction next spring on rehabilitating the structures at the Soldiers Home Complex behind the VA Medical Center.

It follows the 2021 completion of a $44 million project that saved Soldiers Home’s signature building, Old Main, and a series of smaller structures by rehabilitating the buildings into housing for veterans facing homelessness.

The three latest structures, Ward Memorial HallSoldiers Home Chapel and the former Governor’s Mansion, will see new uses designed to support the veterans that now live on the grounds and the thousands that visit.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has publicly sought to find new uses for the buildings since 2018, but was unsuccessful until Alexander stepped forward with nonprofit partner The Center for Veterans Issues (CVI).

Alexander and the VA led a tour of the structures Thursday.

The wood-framed chapel is in the worst shape and appears to have become a popular hangout, and bathroom, for nearby wildlife. It opened in 1889 and, according to a sign on the door warning parishoners to go elsewhere, shuttered in 1989.

The chapel will be rehabilitated to host faith-based services again, but will also be able to host gatherings, workshops and training sessions.

The multi-story theater needs substantial work, but still contains virtually all of its seats. It was built in 1882 as a post office, restaurant store and railroad ticket office, serving trains that ran along what is now the Hank Aaron State Trail. In 1898, its interior was overhauled into a theater. But its usage declined after World War II. A 1980s fundraising campaign involving famed performer Liberace was unsuccessful in securing the building’s rehabilitation and the stage has sat empty since 1992.

The development project will see the historic theater given new life as a place for theatrical productions as well as for events and seminars.

Built in 1868, the former Governor’s Mansion is the oldest remaining building on the campus. It’s also in the best shape out of the three structures the VA has sought to find new uses for. It was in use until 2015. But that sustained use has resulted in the 12-bedroom house seeing many of its interior ornamental features stripped. Windows and a marble fireplace from a 1916 renovation remain.

The 7,488-square-foot house is intended to allow CVI to bring a technological training center and supportive services to the campus. It currently provides similar services at its campus at N. 33rd Street and W. Wisconsin Avenue, but the Soldiers Home location will help establish a one-stop shop for veterans already familiar with going to the VA.

The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance has advocated for the campuses preservation for many years, and has been a public champion of raising philanthropic resources to do so. The campus was designated National Historic Landmark in 2011 and is one of three remaining campuses built for returning Civil War veterans.

“This is something we have been advocating for for the better part of a decade now,” said MPA Executive Director Emma Rudd in an interview. “We are really hear as the champions and the cheerleaders. We are obviously thrilled to have The Alexander Company doing the rest of the buildings.”

MPA offers guided tours of the grounds, details of which can be found on the organization’s website.

Federal Legislation Unlocked Redevelopment

A major piece of federal legislation is enabling the project to move forward and will provide the majority of the project’s financing.

Alexander development project manager Jonathan Beck said the firm didn’t initially bid in 2018 because it was trying to tackle the larger project involving Old Main.

It participated in a 2021 study effort, led by MPA, to attempt to identify the actual costs of rehabilitating the structures but realized there was still a substantial budget gap.

Now, it’s ready to move forward.

“What materially changed was the PACT Act in 2022. That was the biggest influx to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Beck. “$933 million became available for doing enhanced-use leasing (EUA).” The EUA structure is how the VA awards control of the properties to Alexander and other partners without giving up ownership.

Beck said the 2021 feasibility study made the project well suited for a PACT contribution. “The VA put those [dollars] on the table and we negotiated for a little over a year,” said Beck. The deal was approved on Feb. 13.

The VA will allocate approximately $15 million to CVI as an equity contribution to the project. It eliminates the need for an upfront capital campaign.

“Not on just this campus, but on campuses throughout the U.S. you should see more housing being developed and more services being developed,” said Beck of the PACT Act. He said the Milwaukee project represents the first dollars out the door for the VA. “They are really watching the success of this project closely.”

Additional funding is to come from historic preservation tax credits, New Market Tax Credits, a National Park Service Save America’s Treasures grant and philanthropic support.

JP Cullen, which also worked on the Old Main project and the 2021 study, will serve as the general contractor.

The buildings have a notable architectural pedigree. The 21,986-square-foot theater and 7,316-square-foot chapel were designed by Henry C. Koch, the architect of Milwaukee City Hall. The Governor’s Mansion was designed by Edward Townsend Mix, architect of Old Main and many historic structures in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A handful of other Cream City brick structures are still in use by the VA on the campus. The 245-acre complex, 5000 W. National Ave., includes the modern health care center, historic buildings and Wood National Cemetery.

Construction is to begin this year on another project for veterans, though not on the VA campus. Madison-based Alexander is partnering with CVI build a new affordable housing complex near CVI’s headquarters at 3300 W. Wells St. CVI also serves as the property manager at Old Main.

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Categories: Real Estate

3 thoughts on “See Inside 3 Buildings For Civil War Veterans That Will Be Saved”

  1. tornado75 says:

    what beautiful buildings and space. so glad they are being restored.

  2. TosaGramps1315 says:

    These buildings are treasures, and deserve all of the TLC they can get. Truly a gift to our history and our community.

  3. Colin says:

    Love to see these finally going to be restored/reused. How many remaining unused structures are there or are these thefinal ones?

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