Old Main is a five-story Victorian Gothic style building – distinguished by its pointed arch window shapes. It was meant to contribute to the Picturesque charm of the landscape and was strategically positioned on the highest point in the district to take advantage of breezes and the landscape of the area.
Old Main was considered the grandest of all the buildings on the campus, and in the evening, its many windows sparkled and shone brightly into the night, illuminating the grounds below. It remains the centerpiece of the site – its majestic towers visible for miles.
The building’s site atop a knoll was part of the landscape plan so the Main Building would overlook the rest of the Soldiers Home. Attractive architecture and grounds were intended to instill pride in the veterans staying here. The building, completed in 1869, was designed by famed Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix who also designed many of the most prominent buildings in Milwaukee, including the Chamber of Commerce/Grain Exchange Building (1879), Plankinton House (1868), the Mitchell building (1878), and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Depot (1886).
The Main Building was a domiciliary -- for patient living and care -- and was meant to hold all the functions of the Soldiers Home, including administrative offices. The first floor included the dispensary (pharmacy), hospital, library, surgeon’s room, and a sitting room for residents. There was also a dining room in the rear of the building and a bathing room and a laundry room in the basement. The sleeping areas on the second, third, and fourth floors of the building were dorm-style rooms with common gathering spaces.
Old Main originally had a 500-bed capacity, but the building quickly became overcrowded. In the late 1800s, it served as the living quarters for nearly 1,000 veterans. The end towers were added in 1876, and the four corner towers still retain their original iron roof cresting.
Closed in 1989, today, Old Main is part of a rehabilitation project that will restore the building to its former glory and return it to the service of veterans. When complete in Spring 2021, Old Main’s rehabilitation will result in 80 housing units for homeless and at-risk veterans.