October 13, 2022

It Takes a Village: Saving the Milwaukee Soldiers Home

The Milwaukee Soldiers Home is a 2021 recipient of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Awards, the highest national recognition bestowed upon a preservation project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Award recipients represent the best of the best in historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and the re-imagining of historic buildings for the future.

The Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark District is the most intact remaining soldiers home in the country. In 2011, the campus was nominated to the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list by Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, sparking a partnership between local, state, and national preservation groups that began to meet regularly alongside an Advisory Council of veterans and related organizations to explore preservation solutions.

Following a 10-year preservation effort, six historic buildings in the Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark District have reopened to provide housing for homeless veterans. An Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) Agreement between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, The Alexander Company, and the Milwaukee Housing Authority has created a mutually beneficial partnership that revitalized the Milwaukee Soldiers Home and met a community need, while generating income for the federal government. This pioneering and impactful rehabilitation was made possible by committed Section 106 consultation, sustained public engagement, strong advocacy, and creative public/private partnerships.

The following Q&A is with representatives from Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and The Alexander Company—two of the key partners whose work made this project possible. Learn more about the full slate of 2021 awardees here.

A historic graphic showing the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus before the Milwaukee VA Medical Center was constructed. | Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives

The transformation of the Milwaukee Soldiers Home is the result of a decade of hard work by government agencies, private businesses, nonprofits, and thousands of individuals working together. Can you describe how these innovative partnerships formed and how each partners’ role has contributed to its success?

This project truly took a village.

Many of the partnerships that made the rehabilitation of buildings at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home a success, had been formed in years of advocacy work. It took work, but all partners were passionate about achieving the same goal: saving these vacant historic buildings that had fallen into disrepair and returning them to the service of veterans.

In 2010 a proposal was made to build four community living centers on the grounds, requiring consultation under Sections 106 and 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. These regulations were critical to saving the most iconic of the buildings, called Old Main. Consulting parties including the State Historic Preservation Office, the National Park Service Midwest Regional Office (NPS), the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA) began meeting quarterly at the site with the VA Deputy Federal Preservation Officer, VA Liaison to the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation, regional VA Capital Assets Manager, Milwaukee VA Medical Center leadership, U.S. Congresswoman Gwen Moore, and others.

The collaboration and commitment of this diverse group led to an initial programmatic agreement (PA) concerning the living centers in 2011. The PA allowed the living centers to be built while stipulating the development of a campus-wide PA by 2016. A key component of the PA was a requirement for the Milwaukee VA Medical Center to “continue to program for measures that will support the long-term stabilization and adaptive reuse for all vacant and underutilized historic buildings.” This was a major turning point and set in motion a commitment by all parties to work together to find a new use for the buildings.

View of a staircase inside Old Main prior to rehabilitation. | Credit: Milwaukee VA Medical Center

Meanwhile, a number of organizations including the Soldiers Home Foundation, the West Side Soldiers Aid Society, and Reclaiming Our Heritage had been calling attention to the important history of the site and working on preservation solutions for years. MPA took over the lead advocacy role and successfully nominated the campus to National Trust’s 11 Most List in 2011. With a focus on equity and engagement, MPA and the National Trust also partnered to create a Community Advisory Council (CAC) of veterans and related organizations who met regularly to explore preservation solutions.

This “early and often” stakeholder engagement ensured critical community involvement and buy-in throughout the process, especially with veterans groups. Furthermore, it was through the CAC that MPA, The Alexander Company, Ramlow Stein, Mueller Communications, and the Center for Veterans Issues were initially connected—all essential partners in the successful rehabilitation of many buildings at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home.

Under the leadership of The Alexander Company, many partners contributed to make the final deal that saved Old Main and five other buildings possible. The VA was involved in all aspects of the project, including issuing the initial RFQ, RFP, and managing the EUL. The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee was brought in as co-owner with The Alexander Company to operate the facilities, with the VA providing case management and supportive resident services, and the Center for Veterans Issues providing property management. The Alexander Company and Ramlow Stein served as architects and JP Cullen as contractor. MPA and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation managed and received individual contributions for the fundraising campaign.

View of Old Main with scaffolding with Milwaukee's American Family Field pictured in the background. | Credit: JP Cullen

MPA served as the fiscal agent for the campaign, assisting with fundraising and providing significant public outreach, from a walking tour app to educations resources and more. Hundreds of individual, corporate, and foundation donors came together to support this important cause under the Save the Soldiers Home banner.

The combined reward of committed in-person consultation from all sides and strong advocacy, along with revised guidance allowing long-term EULs of federal property to non-federal entities for supportive veteran housing, was the complex and innovative preservation solution we see today. The model followed in Milwaukee is an example not just for other VA campuses, but for challenging large-scale federal projects nationwide.

The work continues for MPA to bring the same success to the remaining vacant and endangered buildings on the Soldiers Home campus: the Chapel, Ward Theater, and the Governor’s Mansion.

What was the most challenging part of this project?

The advocacy work was an uphill battle for many years. A lot of work was done to bring the VA on board with supporting the restoration of the buildings. It took patience, determination, and strong encouragement from the nonprofit, government, and wider preservation community at the local, state, and national level, along with many private individuals and veterans groups working together to move the needle. Preservation advocates worked extremely hard for a very long time, but no one gave up, and the results speak for themselves. The VA of course ultimately became a crucial partner and a strong supporter of the adaptive reuse. Everyone can see what’s possible now that these buildings are providing needed housing for veterans, but it took convincing in the early days to get everyone on board.

From a real estate development standpoint, creating and structuring the capital stack was easily the most challenging. The Alexander Company specializes in historic preservation and has particular expertise in creating complex financial structures, but the Milwaukee Soldiers Home was still by far the most challenging encountered to date.

The $44 million project was financed through a hybrid structure using both 9% and 4% Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (one of the first of its kind in the nation, and the first to be used in Wisconsin), Federal and State Historic Tax Credits, Military Construction Funds, Federal Home Loan Bank AHP Awards, National Housing Trust Funds, City Housing Trust Funds, Capital Magnet Funds, NPS Save America’s Treasures Grant, multiple corporate foundations, and the contributions of 650 individual donors as part of the $3 million Every Hero Deserves a Home capital campaign. The financing sources included federal, state, and local funds, each with their own requirements in terms of timing, application, performance, and so forth, all coming together amid national tax reform which only further added to the complexity.

The second story tower lounge within Old Main now serves as a quiet, contemplative gathering space for residents and guests. | Credit: Ryan Hainey Photography

Can you explain the role that Enhanced Use Leases play in the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus?

The primary goal of the VA’s EUL program is to provide safe, affordable housing for veterans and their families. The EUL structure allows the VA to leverage underutilized property through leasing arrangements with public and private entities on a long-term basis. The properties are typically leased to development entities that finance, design, develop, construct, and maintain the property, assuming all financial obligations and risk associated with the same. Through the use of an EUL, veterans are provided with both housing and an expanded range of services that would not otherwise be available on VA medical center campuses.

For example, in this case the six rehabilitated Milwaukee Soldiers Home buildings are leased to The Alexander Company and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee from the federal VA. When the 75-year EUL ends, the property reverts to the VA. In the meantime, the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee and The Alexander Company are responsible for maintaining and operating the buildings.

Now that the campus has been open for over a year, what impacts have you seen?

One of the most notable is that the project, and innovative partnerships and collaboration therein, has become a national example of how to responsibly leverage vacant federal buildings to better serve the community and work to end homelessness among veterans. The federal VA has credited the Milwaukee Soldiers Home project for setting a precedent in terms of collaboration among the various federal, state, and local stakeholders, and aims to find a way to replicate that collaboration in other parts of the country.

The success of this rehabilitation project has been catalytic in terms of bringing awareness and momentum to the remaining historic buildings on the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus that are candidates for reuse and in dire need of preservation: the Chapel, Ward Theater, and Governor’s Mansion (built in 1868, making it the oldest building on campus). Further, the strong community support for this project and its new residents has been particularly powerful.

Local Milwaukee residents reached out to offer bikes for residents, make quilts, provide welcome baskets of basic necessities, and ensure food, games, and books were available. Time and time again the Milwaukee community expressed that they hadn’t even been aware that this historic district existed, tucked behind American Family Field in a park-like setting. The ongoing advocacy and successful rehabilitation have most certainly changed that.

Exterior of Old Main at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home after rehabilitation. | Credit: Ryan Hainey Photography

MPA has been able to leverage the success at the Soldiers Home for the organization in many important ways. It has brought new donors to the table and provided a large public showpiece for the organization and the preservation cause. Whenever anyone says a building is not salvageable, preservationists can point to the 150-year-old Old Main that was vacant for 30 years and had a collapsed roof, and yet is now providing housing for homeless veterans. It’s also provided the organization an opportunity to develop a regular tour program, which has been a valuable way to provide a more public face to an organization primarily involved in advocacy work.

Notwithstanding the above, the impact of this incredible preservation success on the lives of veterans and their families has been the most important. Welcoming veterans and their families into the 101 units of new supportive housing was a profound experience that’s difficult to put into words. Rather we direct you to this project video that includes a veteran resident sharing his unique experience.

The successful rehabilitation of many buildings on the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus has demonstrated the benefits of historic preservation to the surrounding community, the City of Milwaukee, and those nationwide looking for a successful model of federal/non-federal partnerships. It serves as proof positive that strategic partnerships, visionary leadership, and creative funding cannot just save buildings, but tackle homelessness, ignite a community, and serve as a national model as well.

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