Work starts on $40 million Soldiers Home project to create veteran housing

Restoration effort to finish early 2021

The Old Main building at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center.
The Old Main building at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center. Credit: Matthew Gilson

Last updated on October 1st, 2019 at 03:01 pm

Restoration work has officially begun on the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home project.

A Friday morning groundbreaking ceremony marked the beginning of the project, which consists of the rehabilitation of six buildings on the grounds of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center to provide housing for veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Dignitaries of all levels of government were on hand to celebrate the commencement of the construction work.

“We have a shared responsibility to meet the needs of veterans who have served and sacrificed for us,” U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said. “This project tells an important story about our past and will help write a new chapter about serving homeless, at-risk veterans and improving their quality of life.”

Madison-based developer The Alexander Co. and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee in 2016 were selected to lead the restoration project by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The project is made possible through an enhanced use lease agreement with the VA. The law authorizing such agreements requires the buildings be used for their original purpose of serving veterans.

“This project entailed a significant collaborative effort, which speaks volumes to our nation’s commitment to care for our veterans,” said Joseph Alexander, president of The Alexander Co.

Once the work is complete, the buildings will provide 101 supportive-housing units for veterans and their families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

The buildings to be restored include the iconic Old Main building. Crews will preserve the buildings’ interior and exterior historic features.

Although the groundbreaking ceremony was held on Friday, crews have already been busy cleaning out the building and ridding it of harmful materials, such as asbestos and lead paint. Construction work is expected to finish in the first quarter of 2021.

The Old Main building, a former domiciliary for patient living and care, will be renovated into a an 80-unit apartment building for veterans, including 70 one-bedroom and 10 two-bedroom units. It will feature amenities such as large community spaces, resource centers and a fitness area.

Meanwhile, the Headquarters Building will be converted into single-room occupancy units, which will provide housing for 14 homeless or at-risk veterans. It will also include common-area kitchen, dining, community and living rooms. The historic post office on the first floor of this building will be used as supportive-program offices.

Several duplexes on the grounds will also be restored for veterans housing. These include the former Catholic Chaplain’s Quarters and three private homes that formerly housed Soldiers Home staff and their families. The Chaplain’s Quarters will remain a four-bedroom single-family home, while the others will become two-story, three-bedroom duplexes.

The project is primarily being designed by The Alexander Co. and Milwaukee-based Uihlein Wilson Ramlow Stein Architects. Janesville-based J.P. Cullen & Sons Inc. is the general contractor. The Housing Authority will manage the property once the units are up and running. Supportive services will be provided by the VA.

In fact, the Housing Authority has since 2005 provided housing to homeless veterans on the VA grounds at the historic Surgeon’s Quarters buildings, which it restored into a single room occupancy facility.

On-site supportive services for veterans will include case management, educational training and employment assistance, peer-to-peer counseling, independent-living training, wellness programs and outpatient clinical referrals, among other things.

“Teamwork, coordination, and a shared vision have brought us to this important juncture,” said Mayor Tom Barrett. “We are honoring both our veterans and our history with this work at the Soldiers Home, and the City of Milwaukee is proud to be a partner in that effort.”

The roughly $40 million project is being financed by a variety of sources. According to Milwaukee Economic Development Corp. documents, project financing includes $19.6 million in low income housing tax credits and more than $13.5 million in federal and state historic tax credits. It is also receiving $5 million in military construction funding; $1.55 million from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority; $608,000 from Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago; $125,000 in Milwaukee Housing Trust funds; a $547,000 MEDC loan; and nearly $2.9 million from other grants and contributions.

The Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home is a roughly 90-acre district established just after the Civil War. It was designed as a place of refuge for soldiers to help ease their transition back to civilian life.

It is one of only 43 National Historic Landmarks in Wisconsin, and contains some of the oldest buildings in the VA system.

In April 1864, a group of local women created a temporary home in Milwaukee to service veterans with meals and medical care. They raised $100,000 and obtained a state charter for construction of a permanent facility. Then in March 1865, a month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to create a national system of homes for disabled veterans. The group of Milwaukee women turned over the money they raised to the federal government, and the Soldiers Home opened in 1867. It’s one of the original three such facilities in the country.

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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