By Gwen Moore and Stephanie Meeks
Just west of Miller Park, on the grounds of the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center, lies a series of historic, ornate buildings known as the Milwaukee Soldiers Home. These buildings once welcomed home veterans of the Civil War and, in the ensuing decades, have allowed generations of our soldiers to heal and adjust as they returned to their pre-war lives.
The Soldiers Home has served our veterans for more than a century, and its historic significance cannot be overlooked.
In recognition of this significance, last summer, the Soldiers Home was designated a National Historic Landmark. The distinction is the highest level of recognition a site can receive and puts the Milwaukee Soldiers Home in the company of just 41 National Historic Landmarks in Wisconsin and fewer than 2,500 across the nation.
While most area residents have seen these buildings while tailgating at the stadium or driving on I-94, many people have not had the opportunity to experience up close the grandeur of the Soldiers Home. Along with Veterans Affairs, we would like to invite community members to attend the official unveiling of the National Historic Landmark plaque on April 26 and help celebrate this important milestone.
There are many things to celebrate about the Milwaukee Soldiers Home.
Recent progress on the site has increased the community's hope that the largest and most visible of these historic buildings can be returned to the service of veterans. In late 2012, the VA completed repairs to Old Main, one of the most remarkable historical buildings on the grounds. Repairs were made to a roof that had collapsed on the rear addition and left the building open to the elements for nearly two years. Additionally, work is underway to repair multiple problems at Ward Memorial Hall, the Soldiers Home's grand theater.
These actions have been a key focus of a broad group of community leaders, including the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Together, these organizations have convened a diverse coalition to advocate for the protection, repair and rehabilitation of the Soldiers Home's vacant buildings and identify a vision for returning them to the service of veterans.
The Milwaukee Preservation Alliance and the National Trust, along with business, community and veterans leaders, have made it a priority to work with the VA to preserve this historic landmark. The VA has responded, and we applaud its work to get repairs complete to prevent further damage and lay the groundwork for future reuse of these historic buildings.
While progress at the site has been encouraging, additional voices are always welcome. Members of the public can support restoration efforts at the Soldiers Home by signing the Consensus Report at SavetheSoldiersHome.com. Or if you have a personal story about how the Soldiers Home has made a difference in your life, please consider sharing it at that website.
Given the progress, now is the perfect time to reflect on the history of the Soldiers Home, its historic significance and the recognition it has received from the National Park Service. We know that these buildings have a long way to go and that our work and the work of the VA is not over. However, we are encouraged by recent progress, and we are proud to join alongside the VA, veterans and community members to celebrate the Milwaukee Soldiers Home.
U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) represents the 4th Congressional District. Stephanie Meeks is president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For more information on the plaque unveiling event, go to http://tinyurl.com/NHLSoldiersHome.