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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Preserve Soldiers Home; honor vets

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel November 9, 2012

Preserve Soldiers Home; honor vets By Stephanie Meeks and Bob Curry

As Wisconsinites observe Veterans Day next week, they should take note of an important but often-overlooked place constructed to serve and honor the men and women of our armed services.

Tucked away near Miller Park, on the grounds of the Clement Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center, are some of Milwaukee’s oldest and most significant historic buildings – some of which first began providing services to area veterans shortly after the Civil War.

Unfortunately, these important buildings are also in serious disrepair and badly in need of both short-term stabilization efforts and a longer-term plan to ensure they are able to serve our veterans for generations to come.

Known as the Soldiers Home, the buildings include Ward Theatre and the striking Gothic Revival-style Old Main building, constructed in 1869. The historic importance of the Soldiers Home led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to name the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home as a National Treasure, a special designation that commits the trust to a long-term effort to preserve these buildings and help shepherd their return to active use.

Through this designation, and with the active and ongoing support of committed local organizations and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and the Milwaukee Soldiers Home Community Advisory Council – made up of veterans, neighbors, preservationists and civic, community and business leaders – we are confident that these buildings can be thoroughly restored and once again provide care and services to area veterans.

But even with this strong coalition working to restore the Soldiers Home, the buildings are threatened by disrepair, and their future remains far from certain. In the winter of 2010, for example, Old Main’s roof collapsed – leaving this historic treasure exposed to the elements for nearly two years. The Ward Theatre faces a similarly grave threat.

We applaud the VA for its recent work in stabilizing Old Main. This is a significant step in the right direction. We look forward to working with the VA to address the urgent need for a long-term plan for Old Main and the Ward Theatre that envisions viable uses for the vacant buildings to ensure that they once again can serve veterans.

While the National Trust and other coalition members will continue to work with the VA on this overall goal, we are also encouraging the public to get involved in this effort. One of the challenges the Soldiers Home has faced is lack of public recognition – the fact that many area residents are simply not aware of this outstanding historic asset in their community.

Fortunately, a number of new initiatives will allow the public to become more familiar with the Soldiers Home and lend their voice to the discussion of its future.

First, the public can get involved by signing on to the Community Advisory Council’s Consensus Report supporting the reuse of the district’s vacant buildings. This action continues to demonstrate broad public support for the reuse of the Soldiers Home’s vacant buildings.

Also, a new campaign spearheaded by the coalition, the #MySoldiersHome campaign, is capturing stories, photos and other remembrances of the Soldiers Home – reminding us of the many people positively influenced by the Soldiers Home.

Finally, launching in 2013, members of the public will, for the first time in many years, be able to see the grandeur of this place for themselves through self-guided walking tours offered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance.

More information on all of these opportunities to get involved can be found at We believe that increased awareness of the Soldiers Home will help more people in the community share our passion for it and support its long-term restoration.

On Veterans Day this year, while we reflect upon the service and sacrifice of the men and women of the armed forces, people in Wisconsin can take action on behalf of an important place that has served our veterans for generations. With the public’s help and support, the Soldiers Home can continue to serve veterans for generations to come.

Stephanie Meeks is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Bob Curry is president of the Milwaukee-based veterans’ organization Dryhootch of America.

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