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Battle brews over Soldiers Home project

By Sean Ryan

Preservationists fearing a proposed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs project will spoil the historic Milwaukee Soldiers Home want the agency to consider other sites.

The department proposes a 40,000-square-foot assisted-living building for veterans on a portion of the Solders Home grounds, a medical complex in Milwaukee built in 1867 for Civil War veterans. Preservation groups, after meeting with the VA on April 12, are bristling at the idea of a modern building close to Soldiers Home.

“The therapeutic quality of the grounds would be decimated by new construction,” said Jim Duff, president of the Soldiers Home Foundation Inc., Milwaukee. “The open spaces are part of its value.”

The Soldiers Home property is north of the Clement J. Zablocki Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, a modern health care complex with very little undeveloped land. Brian Walker, VA community relations liaison and assistant public affairs officer, said department planners are trying to create more space for veterans’ health care while not spilling into the historic site.

“That is an ongoing concern,” he said, “and we are definitely concerned about the veterans’ health care.”

The VA department has received four letters, including one from the National Park Service, asking the agency to produce more studies showing what other plans were considered before it builds on and around Soldiers Home.

Duff said the department can strike a balance between preservation and veterans’ care if it renovates a historic building on the grounds for the new assisted-living structure. A 30,000-square-foot building from the Soldiers Home original construction is vacant and could be used for the project, he said.

“I think both can be achieved,” he said, “the preservation of the district and providing services.”

Walker said he does not know if the 30,000-square-foot building was reviewed as an alternative, but renovating the historic buildings poses challenges.

“The needs of a skilled nursing facility, there are certainly requirements, and some of the old buildings may or may not fit that criteria,” he said, “and that’s definitely an obstacle.”

Duff said the project, as proposed, would do too much damage to the historic Soldiers Home grounds. The project would require demolition of two structures — a house for the site’s groundskeepers and a garage. More important, he said, the grounds would lose their secluded character with the addition of a modern building.

The Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission has agreed to draft a letter on the project echoing the other letters’ call for a more thorough review of the project.

Walker said the project is far from a done deal, and the department’s hearings and meetings are designed to collect and respond to concerns. VA officials will respond to concerns about the project, and will next hold a public hearing to gather more comments, Walker said.

“We can’t just make it happen,” he said. “We have to satisfy everybody’s interests.”

Those interests could extend to future historic designations for the property, Duff said. The project could threaten efforts to designate the grounds as a national historic landmark, a move that would give the area greater protections against new development.

“If it doesn’t have the higher status,” Duff said, “the potential for encroachment increases.”

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