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Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010

The National Soldiers Home Historic District

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Despite its central location in Milwaukee County, many locals aren’t aware of the historic and architectural treasure trove that is the National Soldiers Home Historic District. Situated in the shadow of Miller Park on the grounds of the Zablocki VA Medical Center, the district includes an impressive collection of 25 post-Civil War and turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, as well as Wood National Cemetery.

During the Civil War, soldiers injured during combat were typically given a rudimentary form of medical treatment and, if they couldn’t be sent back to the front, were discharged. Men suffering from the physical and mental aftermath of war who didn’t have family or friends to rely on often fell into bleak destitution. In 1861 the Milwaukee Ladies Association had been formed as an auxiliary branch of the United States Sanitary Commission, an agency created to coordinate the volunteer efforts of women who wanted to contribute to the Union’s war effort during the Civil War. Membership grew so large that the organization split into two groups based on where the ladies lived, becoming the East Side and West Side societies. In 1864 the West Side Society reorganized as the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home Society, and opened a provisional “Soldiers’ Home” in a row of storefronts on Plankinton Avenue, providing meals and lodging to returning Wisconsin veterans.

When the war ended, the small facility on the west bank of the river was so overwhelmed with the numbers of vets needing assistance that the women decided to host a “Great Fair” for the purchase of a site and the construction of the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home. Held for 10 days in June and July 1865 in a large temporary hall on Broadway and Clybourn Street, the fair raised more than $100,000.

In March 1865, with legislation approved by Congress and signed into law by President Lincoln, The National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers had been established to care for volunteer soldiers who had been disabled through loss of limb, wounds, disease or injury during their time in the Union forces in the Civil War. Although the local Soldiers’ Home Society envisioned a safe haven for battle-scarred Wisconsin veterans, the ladies decided to offer the money generated from the fair as seed funds for the federal authorities to locate one of the country’s first three asylums here in Milwaukee.

That National Soldiers Home campus blossomed on 410 acres of “gently rolling country” west of the city that, according to Out at the Soldiers’ Home by Elizabeth Corbett (a worker’s child raised on the grounds), allowed planners to put various groups of buildings out of sight of one another, and “all that lay beyond the gates of the Home was shut off from the view of the inhabitants.”

In May 1867 the first 36 soldiers moved into converted farmhouses on the property, and new construction quickly ensued. The oldest building on the grounds is the Governor’s Residence, completed in 1868. The 12-room home has accommodated the directors of the Soldiers Home for generations, including the current VA director. Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix designed the Soldiers Home, or Old Main as it became known, an imposing Second Empire-style structure that, at its peak, provided beds for 1,000 soldiers.

For 80 years, Ward Memorial Hall, a theater built in 1881, was a stop for visiting entertainment, including vaudeville acts, dramatic plays and bands. It’s the only one of the district’s buildings that is listed individually on the National Register. Constructed in 1889, the Home Chapel (currently being restored and reopened by the Soldiers Home Foundation) was the heart of the complex. The multidenominational chapel with seating for 600 was the first of its kind built on government land, and provided a place of tranquility for war-torn vets. It is adjacent to Wood National Cemetery, opened in 1871, where 37,000 service members are buried. There are dozens of other historically significant buildings on the Soldiers Home campus, such as the Headquarters Building, Recreation Hall and Wadsworth Library, among others.

Whether you’re a history buff, an architecture aficionado or simply a citizen wanting to pay your respects, the National Soldiers Home Historic District is worthy of the attention.

For more information, visit the Soldiers Home Foundation at www.soldiershome.org.
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