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History, necessity vie for space on veterans grounds

By Sean Ryan

Past and present are clashing on the veterans administration grounds as preservationists oppose the demolition of two historic buildings to make room for soldier housing.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is collecting comments on its plan to build an estimated 40,000-square-foot, assisted-living center on the eastern edge of the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee.

“It’s a small, homelike facility for veterans,” said Gary Kunich, medical center spokesman.

But there are two historic buildings on the proposed construction site, and they must be demolished to clear 5.9 acres for the veterans housing. The house and garage were built for the officer who oversaw the supply of goods and services to doctors and veterans.

Laura Rinaldi said she is torn between the importance of historic preservation and the need for veterans housing. She is a human resources specialist who works at the VA center, and she is chairwoman of Reclaiming Our Heritage, a nonprofit group that organizes tours of the historic buildings at the VA center.

“That’s the daily battle for the VA,” she said. “Since 1867, we’ve been providing services as they are needed, so there’s always been that fine line between how much can you save versus the services you need to provide.”

The Zablocki grounds include modern health care buildings for veterans, but the eastern portion of the property is the historic Soldiers Home campus. Soldiers Home was built in 1867 to serve veterans of the Civil War. The campus and its 48 buildings have state and federal historic protections.

Veterans today need more supportive housing, but historic buildings should not be torn down to achieve that, said Jim Duff, president of the Soldiers Home Foundation Inc., a Milwaukee nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and repairing the buildings.

“I don’t think it’s a choice between the two alternatives,” Duff said. “I think they both can be served.”

If the VA were to build a large parking structure, Duff said, the new housing could be built on land now used for surface parking.

Kunich said the VA does not plan to build parking structures in 2010. He said the proposed location for the assisted-living center is the only site with enough acreage for the center that also minimizes the loss of historic properties.

“While we do respect the buildings’ historic significance, our mission is to deliver care to our veterans,” Kunich said, “and some of these buildings just aren’t suitable.”

The quartermaster’s house and garage are far from the other historic buildings on site and were never part of the Reclaiming Our Heritage tours of Soldiers Home, Rinaldi said.

“They have temporary parking lots,” she said. “They are struggling for space. So the old has to figure out how to work with the new.”

The VA must get state and federal approval for the building demolitions. The agency has invited the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission to weigh in.

Duff said the Soldiers Home Foundation was invited to provide comments to the city commission.

“We will be formally opposed,” he said, “to any demolition of the historic buildings.”

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