WARD MEMORIAL THEATER
In addition to the Soldiers Home Chapel and the Secretary and Surgeon’s Quarters, Milwaukee architect Henry C. Koch designed Ward Memorial Hall, arguably his most celebrated creation in the Soldiers Home District.
Ward Memorial Hall was constructed in 1881 and named for Horatio Ward, an American banker and patriot who created an endowment fund to construct memorial halls for the Soldiers Homes. The intent was to provide the Home’s residents with cultural activities such as concerts, theatrical performances, and lectures and allow them to socialize, relax and enjoy recreation time with one another.
This two-and-a-half story building is constructed of Cream City brick. The hall was designed in New Renaissance style, which is characterized by round arches and symmetrical windows. It was originally a multi-purpose building with a flat-floored hall, serving as a theater, amusement hall, restaurant, home store, post office and place of worship. At one point, it even housed veterans when membership exceeded space in the barracks.
This striking building is located immediately south of the former railroad line. In fact, Ward Memorial Hall had a passenger waiting room that serviced railroad passengers. A ticket window was used to serve rail passengers at this major stop on the main line of the Milwaukee Road connecting Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Prairie du Chien. The train tracks were removed in 2007 and the area is now part of the Hank Aaron State Trail.
During an 1898 renovation, the hall was rebuilt to its present configuration with balconies, stage, new seats and an orchestra pit, and was used solely as a theater. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, additional enhancements were made to allow for the showing of motion pictures. Acoustical tiles were added to the first floor walls and veterans painted pastoral scenes on them, including images of the Wisconsin Dells. Over the years, Ward Memorial Theater has hosted many appearances by lecturers, vaudeville troupes and musicians.
Like many buildings in this Soldiers Home district, Ward Memorial Hall still contains many of its historical features, including the 1898 balconies and stage as well as historic theater seating. Arguably the most spectacular feature of Ward Memorial Hall was the large stained-glass portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant on horseback, a gift from the people of St. Louis and the Grand Army of the Republic following the army’s 1887 national encampment. In November 2011, the window was removed from the theater for safekeeping until repairs to the buildings are complete.
Ward Memorial Theater is currently vacant and in need of rehabilitation.