Old Main at the Old Soldiers Home, a 154-year-old former veterans home in Milwaukee, reopened in 2021 as housing for 80 homeless and at-risk veterans.Ryan Hainey Photography
Renovating A Historical Facility for New Life
Iconic Old Main at the Old Soldiers Home in Milwaukee survives decades of neglect to return to services for veterans.
Old Main almost did not make it.
The iconic Old Main at the Old Soldiers Home, a 154-year-old former veterans home on the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center grounds in Milwaukee, very nearly succumbed to more than a century of wind and rain and several decades of neglect. Fortunately, efforts to renovate the 133,000-square-foot building that at one time housed more than 1,000 veterans began in 2019 after it had sat unused and unmaintained for 30 years.
“We were afraid it would not have made it another winter, given that there were so many roofing issues,” says Jonathan Beck, development project manager with The Alexander Company, which spearheaded the renovation project. “Before we took ownership of the property, we were spending our own money, getting tarps on the roof in order to prevent further damage from the elements.”
But Old Main survived. After 18 months of renovations, the five-story Victorian Gothic-style building reopened in 2021 as housing for 80 homeless and at-risk veterans. Five nearby smaller buildings also were renovated to bring the total units to 101.
The Main Building was built for patient living and care and was meant to hold all the functions of the Soldiers Home, including administrative offices. The first floor included the pharmacy, a hospital, a library, a surgeon’s room and a sitting room for residents. In the rear of the building was a dining room, and the basement housed a bathing room and a laundry room. The sleeping areas on the second, third, and fourth floors of the building were dorm-style rooms with common gathering spaces.
The renovation of Old Main included restoration of its slate roof, repair and reuse of the building’s original windows, restoration of the wood and terrazzo floors and maintenance of its Cream City brick exterior.
“We put a new roof, all new electrical, mechanical, all new systems, and a new elevator, and everything is running as it should,” Beck says. “The mechanical system is a variable refrigerant flow system (VRF). The reason we did a VRF system is because we had so many historic spaces to work around. We had to be able to go over the tall hallways and through historic areas without disturbing the historic feel of the building.”
The building’s HVAC control system also had to allow for a unique metering arrangement.
“We have a pretty substantial utility bill, and we don’t require any of our tenants to pay the utilities,” Beck says. “This is a single-meter building. It’s not individually metered. Each resident also can control their heat and cooling up to a degree. We were able to put a limit up and down, but our tenants do have that ability.”
Given the challenges facing system designers and installers, the system so far is a success.
“All of the systems are functioning so far,” Beck says. “We had to make sure the mechanical system was functioning and that our property managers understood how the system should run because it’s pretty state of the art," Beck says.
Beyond nuts and bolts
The renovation work to restore Old Main went beyond mechanical systems and structural elements.
“The Wisconsin Veterans Museum ended up working with us to curate 250 pieces of artwork throughout the project,” Beck says. “We did that in such a way that we safeguarded the art. Some of it is original World War One and World War Two recruitment posters. Others are prints and photographs that were reproduced from the permanent collections.”
The finished facility also houses offices for a range of veteran support services, including educational training and employment assistance, counseling, recreational activities, wellness programs, and outpatient clinical referrals. Bringing the renovations together with the critical services required a great deal of communication and planning.
“The project really ended up working beautifully, but the other real challenge with working with all the various local state agencies and federal agencies, in order to bring all of this together was really kind of like a political piece," Beck says. “There have been five federal agencies, state agencies and local agencies.”
One additional positive result is national recognition for a successful renovation project. In December, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) recently named the Milwaukee Soldiers Home as the recipient of the 2021 ACHP/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation.
Dan Hounsell is senior editor of the facilities market. He has more than 25 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management.