Milwaukee Magazine: If These Walls Could Talk

The following coverage appeared on Milwaukee Magazine’s Website. 

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Built in 1881, the Ward Memorial Hall on the Milwaukee Soldier’s Home Grounds has been in desperate need of a facelift since 1989. And this spring, it finally gets one.

BY AIMEE ROBINSON

3/14/2014


Photos by Mark Wahl

Light peeks through windows in the Ward Memorial Hall, dimly noting the ornate architectural detail and reflecting off shattered glass on the floor.

Milwaukee VA Medical Center project manager, Matthew Cryer, and public relations director, Gary Kunich, ascend toward the top level of the Ward Memorial Hall auditorium wearing hardhats. The stairs creak below them with each step. Fog dissipates from their breath as they speak. Continuing upstairs, they walk past different generations of seating – some iron, some wooden. Each harkens back to a different time and place in entertainment: vaudeville, silent film, color. The hand-painted walls look grim within the shadows falling under the florescent lighting.

Since 1989, a lack of funding has left this time capsule deteriorating, along with three other post-Civil War structures on the Milwaukee VA Medical Center grounds. But that might change. The VA has recently approved funding for a complete reroof and façade restoration, which will commence this spring. An even bigger change, allowing the VA to lease vacant structures to outside organizations, could follow shortly after. Ward Hall will not be leased out, but the three other buildings could be.

The history of this structure goes back to 1881, when it was built as an addition to the Northwestern Branch National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Historic District (known as the Milwaukee Soldiers Home). Built in 1867, the Northwestern Branch was one of the first three sites of the modern Department of Veterans Affairs. The establishment of National Soldiers Homes was one of the last pieces of legislation signed by President Lincoln before he was assassinated.

The philosophy of creating the Soldiers Home was to create a safe haven “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan,” as President Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address. More than 90,000 Wisconsin soldiers fought for the Union cause in the Civil War; more than 10,000 of them wouldn’t return home. “The grounds were part of the whole healing experience for the men who had just lived through such traumatic war experiences,” says Jim Draeger, the Wisconsin Historical Society state historic preservation officer. The grounds provided social activities for the veterans living there; a library, bowling alley, chapel and the Ward Memorial Hall provided entertainment and retreat. It was a quiet place to rest weary minds. In 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Milwaukee Soldier’s Home to its “11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

This spring, Ward Memorial Hall will undergo a facelift that will replace the roof and repair the brick, external woodwork and the structure’s stone foundation. These updates allow Ward Memorial Hall to be repurposed for another use than it was originally built for, while still keeping its historical charm. Funding for such initiatives in the VA’s National Historic Landmark District comes solely through the Department of Veterans Affairs construction allocations. Funds put forth will not take away from those allotted to veteran health care. “These allocations are separate from those that finance the health care and services that veterans and I receive at the Zablocki VA Medical Center,” says Cryer, an Army Captain who just recently returned from Afghanistan. “Making sure our veterans get the health care they have earned and deserve is and will remain our highest priority.”

In 2014, the organization will spend 0.78 percent of its $152.7 billion budget (about $11 million) on construction and repairs and 38 percent (about $580 million) for medical programs. “The VA’s mission is first and foremost veteran health care,” says Genell Scheurell, senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “In the past, the VA was unsure how restoring these buildings could directly serve that mission.”

The VA is making strides on these projects. In 2012, $3.75 million was spent restoring Ward Memorial Hall and Old Main buildings. Three more buildings in the VA’s historic district will undergo façade projects this spring and summer, including a 120,150-square-foot building that will also be reroofed.

All federal undertakings inside the Milwaukee VA Medical Center National Historic Landmark District are reviewed by the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office, National Park Service and the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation in keeping with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. “We are trying to find plans to reuse these buildings that are complimentary to what the VA is doing and help find funding to help them adaptively reuse them for the needs they have,” Draeger says. “That’s where the partnership comes in. The group listens and works together to try to craft a win-win situation where the buildings get rehabbed and it doesn’t scrap the VA with the cost.”

A group of concerned citizens formed a Community Advisory Council in 2011, and along with the state historic preservation officer, they have been soliciting the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, to issue guidance for the VA’s use of Section 111 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 111 would allow the VA to repurpose the vacant historical buildings for different uses and also allow them to lease the buildings to organizations outside of the VA. “We do not wish to preserve these buildings as mere relics,” says Cryer. “We are returning them to service the contemporary needs of the veterans we serve.”

The Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, Kansas was granted Section 111 authorization in 2005, and 38 historic buildings are now in the process of being renovated. The enhanced-use lease program allowed outside developers to sign a 75-year-long lease and accept responsibility of restoring and repurposing the buildings for a variety of uses, including veterans’ housing, small businesses and classrooms.

If Section 111 is granted, hopes are to lease the buildings back to veteran organizations. “It could be beneficial if it could work out,” says Tracey Sperko, executive director at Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative. “Organizations would go there for the love of the space.”

Putting these buildings back to veterans’ use is priority in these renovation efforts. “There is nothing more we’d like to see than for these buildings to be used to serve veterans again,” says Megan Daniels, program manager for the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and member of the Community Advisory Council.

If the Department of Veterans Affairs issues guidance for Section 111 to the Milwaukee VA, that’s where the art of preservation comes in. “People have a misconception we are trying to turn everything into a museum,” Draeger says. The main goal is to keep the building’s character and still allow for adaptive reuse. “It involves creative thinking to make these things happen.”

That theory applies to buildings the VA itself will conserve. The Milwaukee VA Medical Center is working with historical architects to find a repurpose for Ward Memorial Hall without diminishing the historically significant features. With renovation efforts in motion, the building’s new purpose has still yet to be decided. “I like some of the ideas I’ve heard for the Ward Theater,” says Gary Kunich, Milwaukee VA Medical Center public relations director. “It meshes the state-of-the-art while maintaining the history.” Some ideas have been a patient care facility, office space or some sort of auditorium. “The conclusion will come down to how can this building best be used for veterans?” Kunich says.

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MPA Reaches Key Fundraising Milestone

Receives $5,000 Matching Grant from the National Trust

MPA Hits halfway mark of campaign to raise funds for Soldiers Home signage along I-94 and the Hank Aaron State Trail

sign-o-meter_15000-241x300The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA) recently announced that it has raised enough funds to secure a $5,000 matching grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The accomplishment brings the total funds raised to $15,000, marking the halfway point of MPA’s Wayfinding and Awareness Campaign.

MPA’s Wayfinding and Awareness Campaign will fund the purchase and installation of Department of Transportation (DOT) signage along Interstate Highway 94 and interpretive signage along the Hank Aaron State Trail for the Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark District (Soldiers Home), one of Milwaukee’s most important historic landmarks. The campaign is a part of a broader effort led by MPA, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other local preservation and veteran groups, to raise awareness of the Soldiers Home Historic District and promote the rehabilitation of key historic buildings in order to return them to the service of veterans.

“Visible and prominent signage is crucial for our effort to raise awareness for the Soldiers Home Historic District, one of our nation’s most important historical landmarks and an architectural treasure here in Milwaukee,” said Dawn McCarthy, President of MPA. “The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all that have contributed to this campaign so far and helped us achieve our first milestone.”

MPA achieved this benchmark goal thanks to an outpouring of support from individuals and groups who wish to see the historic buildings in the Milwaukee Soldiers Home Historic District rehabilitated. Though raising enough funds to receive the full matching grant from the National Trust is a great starting point for the campaign, MPA continues to call on the community and local foundations to help it reach its ultimate goal of $30,000.

“The National Trust is proud and excited to contribute $5,000 to MPA for this important Wayfinding campaign. We hope it will attract many other contributors who value this special place,” said Genell Scheurell, Senior Field Officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Conserving the integrity of these important buildings starts with knowledge and awareness. It is our hope that this signage will encourage Milwaukee residents and visitors to learn more about this hidden jewel in the heart of the city.”

MPA continues to accept contributions to support its Wayfinding and Awareness Campaign. To learn more about this campaign, upcoming events and how you can get involved, please visit www.MilwaukeePreservationAlliance.org/Wayfinding.

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A Fundraising Update from MPA

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Thanks to our many generous friends, we had a great response to our Soldiers Home Signage Campaign leading up to the holidays. We are very encouraged by the many donations and wishes for good luck. Though we didn’t quite make our end of year goal, we anticipate continuing that momentum into the new year. Accordingly, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has agreed to extend its matching grant to February 15th, to allow donors to continue to have their gifts doubled!

We are making great strides, but your support is still needed. Please give whatever you can -$10, $25, $50 or more -to help us increase the knowledge and appreciation of this incredibly unique National Historic Landmark.  Absolutely every donation is appreciated and will help us reach our total goal of $30,000 to fund directional and interpretive Soldiers Home signage.

The rehabilitation and reuse of the Milwaukee Soldiers Home starts with knowledge and awareness. Help us spread the word about this historic gem that is right in our own backyard, partner with us by funding Soldiers Home signage today.

Click here to learn more about the campaign and how you can donate.

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MPA Launches Fundraising Campaign to add signage for Milwaukee Soldiers Home

National Trust for Historic Preservation to match donations made before the end of the year, up to $5,000!

The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance (MPA) announced today the launch of a fundraising campaign to support the purchase and installation of Department of Transportation (DOT) signage along Interstate Highway 94 and interpretive signage along the Hank Aaron State Trail for the Milwaukee Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark District (Soldiers Home), one of Milwaukee’s most important historic landmarks.

MPA’s Wayfinding and Awareness Campaign is part of a broader effort by the organization, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other local preservation and veterans groups, to raise awareness of the Soldiers Home Historic District and promote the rehabilitation of key historic buildings to the service of veterans.

“This Wayfinding and Awareness Campaign is a crucial piece of our overall effort to raise awareness of one of our city and our nation’s most important historical landmarks,” said Dawn McCarthy, President of the MPA. “The signage is a low cost, high impact way to influence all Milwaukee residents and visitors to Milwaukee who travel past the Soldiers Home every day, but have never known how to to learn more.”

In 2011, the Soldiers Home was designated as a National Historic Landmark (NHL), making the District eligible for DOT NHL signage. This signage, which is used for many other National Historic Landmarks across the state, will show travellers on the interstate the location of the Soldiers Home National Historic Landmark.

In addition to the highway signage, MPA is working closely with the Hank Aaron State Trail to develop interpretive signage about the Soldiers Home to be placed at the juncture where the trail passes through the District.

“For years, trail users have inquired about the remarkable historic buildings in the District,” said Melissa Cook, Manager of the Hank Aaron State Trail. “It is my hope that this signage will not only provide the historic context of the District, but will inspire those who pass by to learn more about this hidden jewel we have right here in our backyard.”

The funds raised by MPA’s campaign will go directly toward the purchase and installation of two Department of Transportation (DOT) signs along Interstate 94 as well as an interpretive sign along the Hank Aaron State Trail.

The Wayfinding and Awareness Campaign kicked off with the recently completed downloadable self-guided walking tour app. The Soldiers Home walking tour smartphone app, complete with historical photos, audio narration and key historic facts about this district, has been a great success.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has also given a matching grant of $5,000 to MPA for the project.

“We are excited to be able to offer donors the opportunity to double their investment in this important campaign,” said Genell Scheurell, Senior Field Officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “As individuals look to make their end-of-year gifts, we hope they will consider funding this effort.”

MPA is currently accepting contributions to support its Wayfinding and Awareness Campaign. To learn more about this campaign, upcoming events and how you can get involved, please visit www.MilwaukeePreservationAlliance.org/Wayfinding. To download the Soldiers Home walking tour smartphone app, please visit www.SavetheSoldiersHome.com/tour.

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee VA Medical Center balances service, preservation

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Dawn McCarthy Featured in M Magazine’s List of Game Changers

Dawn Coverage

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National Trust report shows Milwaukee VA Medical Center stands apart from its peers

As you may know, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs is the custodian for many historic resources across the nation, including those at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home. This week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released a report, Honoring Our Veterans: Saving Their Places of Health Care and Healing, that explores the Department of Veterans Affairs’ cultural resource stewardship, identifies deficiencies and best practices, and highlights the work the National Trust and others have been doing at Milwaukee Soldiers Home to save this National Treasure. We hope this report will help to change policies at the VA that are preventing historic VA properties from being saved or reused.

While the report recommended a number of areas of improvement, one thing was abundantly clear: the Milwaukee VA Medical Center stands apart from its peers. Today, the Milwaukee VA serves as an excellent example of how open dialogue between key stakeholders can create mutually beneficial solutions.

Though we are not yet at the finish line for the Milwaukee Soldiers Home, we have come a long way and made significant progress. We are fortunate to have a positive working relationship with the Milwaukee VA Medical Center and appreciate the VA’s willingness to engage with us on finding the best solutions for its vacant buildings. It is our hope that other VAs around the nation can look to Milwaukee as an example of how the VA can work with preservationists to advance solutions for veterans and preserve some of the most important buildings in our history.

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