The National Soldiers Home Historic District, in Milwaukee, is the birthplace of federal veteran care in America and is a soldiers’ recuperation and living settlement established just after the Civil War. This 90-plus acre district rests on the grounds of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee between what is now National Avenue and Bluemound Roads, directly west of Miller Park.
The National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, as it was originally named, was established in 1865. The establishment of a system of National Soldiers Homes, including Milwaukee, was one of the last pieces of legislation signed by President Lincoln before his assassination. In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln had asked the nation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” These words and the persistence of many citizens including women fromMilwaukee’s Soldiers Aid societies, mark the beginning of the mission of the present-day Department of Veterans Affairs.
It was the ladies of Milwaukee’s West Side Soldiers Aid Society—already operating a hospital on Plankinton Avenue in Milwaukee—who led, and paid a big portion of the way toward Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home. Inspired by President Lincoln’s charge, the ladies organized a 10-day fair in June 1865 to raise money for a permanent Wisconsin Soldiers Home. They raised more than $100,000 and were persuaded to turn their assets over to the federal government. The women stipulated that theMilwaukeeproperty would not have exclusions and, specifically, would admit federal veterans from all conflicts to a home that would be used solely for the care of soldiers. In May 1867, the first 36 soldiers moved into what came to be known as the “Old Soldiers Home.”
Following the organization of the Soldiers Home system, a National Board of Managers designated the first branches: an Eastern branch in Maine; a Central Branch in Ohio; and the Northwestern Branch in Milwaukee, Wis. Today, the Northwestern Branch is the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, also known as The National Soldiers Home Historic District.
The district remains unique, not only in its welcoming history but in its literal standing. The Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus is the only one of the three original sites to have its majestic Soldiers Home intact, and it is also the only one with the majority of its surrounding recuperative village remaining. The Soldiers Home walls and grounds and memories depict the history not only of veteran care but also of nursing home and institutional care in America. The National Soldiers Home Historic District is listed on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places and is under current consideration for National Landmark status.
In all, the National Soldiers Home Historic District houses 25 post-Civil War and turn-of-the 20th Century buildings as well as the oldest two-thirds of Wood National Cemetery and dozens of park-like acres.
The most historically significant and architecturally dominant building is the site’s namesake, the Soldiers Home (Bldg. 2), or “Old Main,” as veterans nicknamed her. Designed by Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix, Old Main was completed in 1869 and was a domiciliary with long rooms, common foyers and sitting rooms. Though used for veteran housing until the 1970s, the basic interior design remains as it was in 1869.
Most prominent in the tranquil grounds is Wood National Cemetery, the final resting place of some 37,000. Since the first burial in 1871, the cemetery has become the final home for U.S. soldiers and veterans from the War of 1812 to Iraqi Freedom. The cemetery holds four Medal of Honor recipients; members of the first black federal infantry unit, the famed 54th Massachusetts; several Buffalo soldiers; and U.S. Colored Troops veterans.
Wood National Cemetery is a large part of the remaining park-like setting of the district. Massive park grounds once filled the site and welcomed 300,000 visitors annually at the end of the 19th Century. Today, park feelings remain strong, though only one of four original lakes still holds water—Lake Wheeler.
Such a setting was designed to heal not only the body but the soul, and the heart of the district’s serenity rests in the 1889 Home Chapel (Bldg 12). The 7,000-square foot Chapel has been a place of prayer, refuge, and true patriotism and has stood as silent sentry over the fallen. It was constructed by Wisconsin veterans and citizens with money raised from Soldiers Home Post Funds, personal donations, and Posthumous Funds. It opened September 22, 1889, as a multi-denominational chapel with seating for 600, one of the first such facilities built on federal government land and reportedly the first in Wisconsin.
Milwaukee architect and Civil War veteran Henry Koch designed many of the Soldiers Home buildings including the Chapel and the site’s celebrated Ward Memorial Hall (Bldg. 41) or Ward Theater—listed individually on the National Register. Completed in 1881, the playhouse was a popular stop for minstrel shows, vaudeville, variety acts and drama. Entertainers included Will Rogers, Bob Hope, George Jessel, Burns and Allen, Sophie Tucker, Ethel Merman, Nat King Cole, and Liberace. One of the first theaters in Wisconsin, Ward Memorial Hall served as a theater and an amusement hall, restaurant, home store, and post office. A ticket window served rail passengers. Most prominent, especially when lit at night, is the large stained-glass equestrian portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant on the east side of the Theatre, installed in 1887, a gift from the people of St. Louis and Grand Army of the Republic.
For much of its life, the Soldiers Home village revolved around the Headquarters Building (Bldg. 1), built in 1896. Today, it is home to the Soldiers Home Foundation, Friends of Reclaiming Our Heritage, Poppy Sales and American Legion and VFW offices. On the other end of the village is the Hospital and Convalescent Wards (Bldg. 6), built in 1879. Originally, it housed only elderly Civil War Veterans, the beginnings of federal nursing home care in America. Amenities included four sun parlors and a tuberculosis porch. Also prominent is the Wadsworth Library (Bldg. 3), built in 1891. The library remains open as a quiet place for veterans to read, study, and contemplate under the beauty of an original skylight. The library is the best-preserved of the primary historic district village buildings.
There are dozens of other historically significant buildings in the Soldiers Home village—from the gable-roofed Surgeon’s & Adjutant’s Quarters (Bldg. 17), built in 1887, to 1880s cream brick Barracks and a 1894 Recreation Hall (Bldg. 4) built from Post Funds to such maintenance buildings as the 1883 Fire Engine House (Bldg. 11), the 1895 Power Plant (Bldg 45), the Commissary Warehouse/Quartermaster’s Storehouse or “Stone Barn,” (Bldg. 20), erected in 1896 and renovated in 1938 as well as Quonset huts erected in the 1940s. The Governor’s Residence (Bldg. 39) is the oldest building on the site. Completed in 1868, it has housed the Soldiers Home’s directors for generations including the current VA director.
For all the history and architecture and famous names associated with the National Soldiers Home Historic District, it is most of all the names no one knows who most make this district, its 25 buildings, and its cemetery so significant to Wisconsin and America. It is the thousands of soldiers, mostly Wisconsin soldiers, who lived and recuperated, and suffered and died at the Home built for the veteran who had “borne the burden” but could not return home from it. Their history is the true treasure that these buildings hold.