veterans of the Civil War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the
90-acre Soldiers Home Historic District on the grounds of the Clement
J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center has been a
sanctuary for healing body and spirit. The district was recently named
a National Landmark and one of the year’s 11 most endangered
historic places in the country by the National Trust for Historic
Home Foundation is working to restore three buildings — the chapel,
Ward Memorial Theater and Old Main — before they are lost to the
ravages of time. The public is no longer allowed into those buildings
because roofs are caving in, plaster is falling off the walls and
structural damage has rendered them unusable. The plan is to raise
funds to rehabilitate the three buildings for current and future
veterans, says Jim Duff, president of the Soldiers Home Foundation.
historic district was designated as an endangered landmark, says Ali
Kopyt of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, "because what’s
important about the project is not just the buildings, but the
Duff says some
have referred to the district as "Milwaukee’s Central
Park," because it is a tranquil oasis in the city, bordered by
West National Avenue and Bluemound Road, just west of Miller Park.
Even before the Civil War, Duff says, Milwaukeeans used the grounds as
a gathering place for band concerts, picnics and civic events.
But the district
is much more than a peaceful park. National history lives here. Wood
National Cemetery, for example, is the final resting place for several
Buffalo Soldiers, African-Americans who fought in the Indian wars.
establishing a system of National Soldiers Homes was one of the last
laws President Abraham Lincoln signed before his assassination. There
were three such homes organized at that time, Duff says, in Maine,
Ohio and Milwaukee. "This is the only one of the three still
standing," Duff says. All of the buildings on the grounds, except
the three slated for restoration, are being used today.
a Milwaukee Soldiers Home was a cause enthusiastically embraced by
Wisconsin women, led by Cordelia Harvey, a Civil War nurse and widow
of Gov. Louis Harvey. In June 1865, The women of the Milwaukee
Soldiers Home Society staged a 10-day fair, raising $77,000 to create
a facility for the care of veterans.
The soaring Old
Main building, designed by architect Edward Townsend Mix, was
originally a domiciliary, housing homeless soldiers returning from
duty. Built in 1869, Old Main was the heart and soul of the Soldiers
Home, and was occupied by veterans until the late 1980s. At its peak,
nearly 1,000 veterans lived at Old Main.
originally held worship services at Old Main, but early on, the
government pointed out that the services were a violation of
separation of church and state, Duff says. So the veterans raised the
funds to build a chapel on the grounds. The wood-frame chapel, built
in 1889, was used for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services and
funerals, as well as its share of weddings.
Where the Hank
Aaron Trail now runs past Ward Memorial Theater, there once was a
passenger rail line. Kopyt says as the train pulled into the Soldiers
Home station with returning veterans, "their sweethearts would be
waiting for them, and they’d run right up to the chapel and get
Memorial Theater, built in 1883, once housed an amusement hall,
restaurant and post office. As a theater, it presented national
entertainers like Will Rogers, Bob Hope, the Burns and Allen comedy
team, Sophie Tucker and Nat King Cole. Duff says the flamboyant
pianist Liberace, as a young man, would often play concerts for
veterans at the Ward, since he lived just across the street from the
Soldiers Home. The theater is also an architectural treasure, with an
enormous Tiffany stained glass window featuring an equestrian portrait
of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
significant histories, Duff says, "Nobody wants these buildings
to be museums. We want them to be restored, historically, and put
right back into service for veterans."
information on the Soldiers Home Foundation, visit soldiershome.org
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