Thursday, September 13, 2012

Milwaukee's Old Soldier Home


I've been eagerly looking forward to checking out Milwaukee's National Soldier Home campus for a very long time now. Especially due to the very fact that one of the biggest and important of the buildings, Old Main, as well as other original buildings that date back to the late 19th century, are dangerously close to collapsing due to deteriorating conditions within the building structures. So, I felt that it was deeply important to look at these relics from the past before they simply became part of the historical record in pictures.

The Old Chapel
I have been constantly intrigued to check the place out, since I find myself staring at the military gravestones that's part of Wood National Cemetery, and seeing just the top of Old Main as I drive past on the interstate. Also, it's just right there, just beyond Miller Park's massive parking lot, hidden behind a small forest of trees. 







What's fascinating about the National Soldiers Home, is that it's the birthplace of federal veteran care in America, and it's where soldiers' recuperation and living settlement was established following the American Civil War's end in 1865.

The first soldiers, about 36 of them, moved into what's known as the "Old Soldiers Home" in May of 1867.


Of the three Soldier Homes that were built across the country, the Milwaukee Soldiers Home campus is the only one of the three original sites to still have its Soldiers Home largely intact, and its also the only one with the majority of its surrounding recuperative village remaining.

The other two homes in Togus, Maine, and Dayton, Ohio, are long gone.




The above photos are of the Home Chapel. The 7,000-square foot chapel was a place of prayer and refuge for those who fought in the various wars, until it stopped being used in the 1970s. Now it stands on the landscape, overlooking the long gone, as it slowly deteriorates.

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, and was one of the first facilities built on federal government land and reportedly the first in Wisconsin.




Old Main was completed in 1869 and was the rest home for the soldiers, with long rooms, common foyers and sitting rooms. Though used for veteran housing until the 1970s, the basic interior design remains as it was originally in 1869. But, The mansard roof of Old Main collapsed during a snowstorm, leaving a gaping hole and the structure exposed to the elements. It's only a matter of time before the whole building gives way.

Old Main




One of the interesting things about the Old Main building, or the Solider Home as it's commonly called, is that there's wire mesh attached to the building, possibly holding up the bricks that on the exterior of the building.


It's a bit sad to see the depressing state of the whole building, with both the wire mesh and a tall fence around the structure, with barbed wire on top to seek people from entering.




When I was looking at the building and admiring it, a lady was sitting across the street with her dog and told me that now was the perfect time to take pictures of the building, because it could be gone soon enough.

Ward Memorial Hall




One of the other buildings that I came across as I walked around the grounds, was Ward Memorial Hall, which was built by architect Henry C. Koch. The building was also blocked off by a fence, due to a roof collapse and water infiltration. 


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. Due to being full on daylight out, I was unable to see the stained glass image.
Ward Memorial Hall

Ward Memorial Hall









One of the first theaters in Wisconsin, Ward Memorial Hall served as a theater and an amusement hall, restaurant, home store, and post office.















The theater 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. 







The Soldiers Home was one of the first racially integrated federal programs, if not the first, a place where white and black Civil War veterans lived together many years before the armed forces were themselves desegregate.










Just beyond the various buildings that make up the Soldiers Home grounds, there sits Wood National Cemetery. The cemetery is the final resting place of some 37,000 soldiers. 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.

Due to grounds keepers mowing amongst the gravestones at the time of my visit, I wasn't able to walk amongst the rows of fallen soldiers. I'll be sure to return and report my findings in another blog post. I'll end it here and leave you with several more photos that I took.










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