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Rediscovering the healing power of nature and architecture

Therapeutic environments have benefited a great number of veterans dealing with medical ailments, but what many may not know is that this kind of healing has been taking place right in our own backyard at Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center.

The National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, better known as the Milwaukee Soldiers Home, was designed to create a healing environment for veterans of the Civil War and continues to serve that purpose even today. Its beautiful and historic architecture, set within a serene, park-like setting, has helped to improve the overall wellness of our veterans for nearly 150 years.

As doctors and health care experts work to better serve the newest generation of soldiers and veterans, increasingly they are recognizing that natural landscapes and soothing architectural environments can have a significant impact on a patient’s healing process. This impact has been documented through numerous studies that demonstrate clear and tangible improvements in health outcomes and overall patient experience, including less medication use, shorter hospital stays and an overall decrease in stress and anxiety.[i]

How does this recuperation process work? The calming effects and beauty of landscaping and architecture create an environment that is enjoyable to spend time in, promoting relaxation, feelings of pleasure and an overall sense of well-being and happiness. As Stephen Mitrione, M.D. with a masters of landscape architecture put it “happiness and good health go hand in hand, and one of the factors that determines our state of mind is the quality of our surroundings. When we are ill, upset or stressed, our heightened sense of vulnerability leaves us craving a comfortable, familiar and safe environment.”[ii]

The Soldiers Home Fountain is one of the oldest operating fountains in Milwaukee. In 2001, the fountain underwent a complete restoration, including the removal of 37 layers of paint. It was rededicated in 2003.

When the Soldiers Homes were established, they were carefully designed to create a park-like atmosphere that included features like lakes, ponds, grottoes, and other landscape elements that refreshed and amused veterans. It was part of a larger effort to promote broader well-being and health among veterans, which included providing productive work, entertainment and recreation.

Old Main was home to various functions of the Soldiers Home, including administrative offices, barracks, medical services, kitchen and dining room, chapel and meeting rooms, and laundry and bath rooms. The multi-purpose plan resulted in a grand structure that dominated the landscape and continues to do so to this day. Unfortunately, this important building is in urgent need of repair. In winter 2010, a roof truss collapsed under the weight of snow and the gaping hole remains unrepaired.

The Soldiers Home in Milwaukee still has features that were part of the original vision, offering serene landscaping features like Lake Wheeler, the Silurian Reef and the Soldiers’ Home Fountain. The Milwaukee Soldiers Home also boasts therapeutic and historical architecture in Old Main, the Wadsworth Library, the Ward Memorial Theater and the Soldiers Home Chapel.[iii]

Unfortunately, three of the District’s most well-known and architecturally significant buildings are in great need of rehabilitation so they can be returned to the service of veterans. By restoring these currently unused buildings, the healing nature of the District could be made available to even more veterans as they receive treatment and access services within the scenic and architecturally significant Soldiers Home District. Another key issue to consider is potential new development on the district grounds. As new developments on the District grounds are proposed, it is important that they do not infringe upon the designed landscape that is such an important part of the environment of healing that exists there.

The 7,000-square-foot Soldiers Home Chapel was designed and constructed by Milwaukee architect Henry C. Koch and opened for use on September 22, 1889 as a multi-denominational worship space with seating for 600. Today, the Soldiers Home Chapel is inaccessible and in need of restoration and stabilization.

Since being named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Trust has partnered with the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance to bring together a broad-based group of individuals and organizations that value Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home District and are committed to restoring it to fulfill its original purpose of meeting the needs of our veterans and honoring them with a unique healing environment that has served their predecessors for more than a century.

Ward Memorial Hall was also designed and constructed by Henry C. Koch, and opened in 1881. The hall was originally built as a theater, restaurant, and train passenger waiting room. Today, the theater is closed and has experienced significant roof damage, leaving it exposed to the elements and deteriorating. In November 2011, one of the theaters most notable features, a stained glass window depicting a life sized figure of General Ulysses S. Grant, was removed from the Theater for safekeeping. The window was used as a decoration at the General Army of the Republic’s National Encampment at St. Louis, Mo., in 1887 before being donated to Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home.

For more information about how you can get involved in saving the soldiers home as well as to learn about our vision for the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home Historic District, please visit


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