VA Demolishing Soldiers Home Power Plant » Urban Milwaukee


Demolition of the Soldiers Home power plant. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Demolition of the Soldiers Home power plant. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Old Main was saved, but another piece of Milwaukee’s Soldiers Home Complex is being demolished in favor of parking.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is deconstructing the disused, Cream-City-brick power plant located in the middle of the 245-acre Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center, 5000 W. National Ave.

Both Old Main and the power plant, as well as several other historic buildings on the campus, were included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation‘s 2011 designation of the Soldiers Home complex as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the country.

And while 2021 saw Old Main and five other sensitively redeveloped buildings open as housing for veterans at risk of homelessness, the power plant was not as lucky.

Known formally as Building 45, the coal-burning complex was constructed in 1895 to provide steam heat and electricity for Old Main and the several-dozen other buildings constructed to house and rehabilitate Civil War veterans. A network of steam lines and tunnels connected it to the rest of the campus.

But by 1967 the power plant was idled in favor of a new facility to its west. It’s been used primarily for salt storage since, a decision which was a primary factor in its deterioration, according to a 2013 report. That report concluded the building could be salvaged and its future was an economic, not structural decision.

Now Progressive Construction Services is leading a $1.7 million deconstruction project that seeks to salvage some of the bricks while disassembling the building. The large metal structure captured in our photos came down last week.

A VA press release says the building will be replaced this fall by a 47-stall surface parking lot.

“We are not thrilled about the demolition and deconstruction,” said Milwaukee Preservation Alliance executive director Jeremy Ebersole in an interview. But Ebersole, citing a confluence of regulations, said it makes more sense now to focus on other vacant buildings on the campus, including the chapel, governor’s mansion and Ward Memorial Hall.

He said the VA would be constructing an interpretative sign to mark the location of the power plant and agreed to deconstruct, instead of demolish, the structure as part of a project review under the National Historic Preservation Act.

“The powerhouse’s demolition is an unfortunate, but not unexpected loss,” said Ebersole.

The preservation advocate said the VA had offered the property alongside Old Main, but the winning bidder, Alexander Company, didn’t include it in its plans. Part of the challenge was that the enhanced lease use agreement legal structure under which the other buildings were rehabilitated was only available for housing. Ebersole said that was one of the limiting factors that has since been reworked, making it more likely future buildings could be saved.

A feasibility study to preserve other buildings at the complex, including the theater, is expected to be released in the coming months. The preservation alliance received a $5,000 matching grant in 2020 to hire a consultant to complete the study.

The VA did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.


Pre-Demolition Photos

TIF Could Fund Traffic Calming, Affordable Housing Near Downtown

The Department of City Development is proposing to use excess revenue from an overperforming tax incremental financing (TIF) district to fund traffic calming measures in an area just north of Downtown.

The various improvements planned include installing speed humps and curb bump-outs, a traffic circle and high-visibility crosswalks. A number of streets would be subject to high-impact paving, a strategy of replacing the top layer of asphalt that is designed to extend a street’s life by 10 to 15 years. Sidewalks would also be improved in certain locations.

The improvements would be in an area roughly bounded by W. North Ave., W. Highland Ave., the Milwaukee River and Interstate 43 that includes the Brewers Hill, Hillside, Deer District, Westown and Halyard Park neighborhoods. The different elements would work together with the “intent to calm traffic within the neighborhood and provide a safer environment for pedestrians,” says a city report.

A total of $5.5 million in incremental revenue would be leveraged from a TIF district originally used to subsidize the redevelopment of a former We Energies power plant into a home for Spectrum and ManpowerGroup‘s relocation to downtown Milwaukee. State law allows for overperforming districts to be amended to fund street improvements within a half mile of their borders until a district reaches its maximum life of 27 years.

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What’s That Big, New Tower at The Port?

The largest investment in Milwaukee’s port since the Saint Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 is taking shape.

The new $35 million facility, which will be operated by the Clinton-based DeLong Company, will be primarily used for exporting a nutrient-rich byproduct of converting corn to ethanol to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Led by Governor Tony Evers and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking in October, but there wasn’t much to see as the site was still a gravel lot amidst the 467-acre port. Instead of turning over dirt, dignitaries tossed shovels of something referred to as DDGS, or dry distillers grain with solubles, the primary product that will be exported from the facility.

Now the future footprint of the inner harbor facility is clearly visible. A metal tower, wrapped in an open-air staircase, is visible from the Hoan Bridge. It’s part of the conveyance system to move DDGS through the complex, and ultimately, onto ships. The sizable footprint of the product storage building is also visible, with a concrete foundation poured.

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Car-Lite East Side Building Wins Approval

The developers of a car-lite apartment building for Milwaukee’s East Side have secured the necessary design approvals to construct the building.

In recent weeks, developer Ryan Pattee and real estate agent Shar Borg secured formal support from both the East Side Architectural Review Board and Board of Zoning Appeals to develop a four-story, 53-unit building on the 1500 block of E. North Ave. between N. Newhall St. and N. Cambridge Ave. It would include two first-floor commercial spaces, with one tenant already secured.

“We’re trying to help small households thrive without having to own cars, or at least own fewer of them,” said Pattee in an April interview. The building, located between a McDonald’s and UW-Milwaukee residence hall, would have a mix of one-bedroom and studio apartments.

“If you are spending $1,000 a month on rent, do you want to be spending almost that much on your car?” Borg said, referencing the estimated $9,500 annual cost of vehicle ownership.

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Should City Preserve Industrial Properties Near 11th and Bruce?

An oft-overlooked section of Walker’s Point will be subject to a new land-use plan from the Department of City Development.

The area in question — largely comprised of a cluster of century-old industrial buildings — is bounded by Interstate 43/94 (9th) and S. Cesar E. Chavez Dr. (16th) and the Menomonee River and W. National Ave. Many of the buildings are located along W. Bruce St. or W. Pierce St.

“Do you envision an ultimate transition to mixed use?” asked Alderman Robert Bauman at the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee meeting Wednesday.

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Million-Dollar Childcare Center Filling Vacant School

A former school would find new life as a childcare center under a proposal from Tashawana Green and the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation (NWSCDC).

NWSCDC would purchase the vacant 11,547-square-foot building from the City of Milwaukee and redevelop it for use by Green.

Green, who operates a home-based childcare business in partnership with Next Door Foundation, would relocate her Train Up A Child Daycare business to the building at 3201 N. 40th St., near Sherman Park.

“This is an old school that was tucked away in this really beautiful part of the city,” said NWSCDC’s James Starke to members of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee Wednesday morning. “We think it’s a great asset to have a high-quality daycare within walking distance [of the park.”

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MIAD Overhauling Campus Center

As part of a $10 million fundraising campaign, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD) is working to improve its campus center, expand its scholarship offerings and grow its student body.

“We were busy during [the COVID-19 pandemic] and now we are going public with many of those things,” said Stacey Steinberg, MIAD’s executive director of marketing & communication in an interview.

Visitors to the college, including prospective students, will notice a series of changes to the Jane Bradley Pettit Building, 273 E. Erie St.

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31-Story Third Ward Tower Developer Applies For Construction Permits

A 31-story, 333-unit apartment building proposed for a “landmark” site in the Historic Third Ward appears headed for a groundbreaking.

Multiple permit requests are pending before the Department of Neighborhood Services to enable the building’s construction atop what is currently a surface parking lot. The final building, according to a new commercial construction permit, would stand 342 feet tall. Including the parking structure, planned at approximately 400 spaces, it would be a 542,285-square-foot building.

The riverside site is located kitty-corner from the Milwaukee Public Market. The new building would include a tower along E. St. Paul Ave. that emerges from a seven-story base. The first floor of the base would include 11,750 square feet of commercial space, including restaurant-targeted commercial space. The upper floors would be primarily the parking structure, with the top of the structure holding the tower and an outdoor amenity area for residents. The amenity area would include an outdoor swimming pool, while an indoor area in the tower would include a coworking space, two lounges and fitness center.

A new connection to the Milwaukee RiverWalk would stretch from the corner of N. Water St. and E. St. Paul Ave., under the edge of the tower, to the Milwaukee River. The existing riverwalk, currently disconnected from the property, would remain.

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Local Investor Buys Ma Baensch Building

A Riverwest icon is now in the hands of new owners.

An investment group led by Nathan Bernstein purchased the Ma Baensch building at 1025 E. Locust St. The pickled herring company, as of 2021, uses a Minnesota co-packer to make its products, rendering the 9,651-square-foot building and 0.30-acre property surplus.

Bernstein’s Bender-McNamara LLC paid $625,000 on Friday for the property according to Wisconsin real estate transfer records. It was listed last month with Bill and Joe Langhoff of Colliers International for $539,000.

It’s the second notable property Bernstein has purchased in the past year. Last summer, Bernstein also acquired the two-story building at 1950-1956 N. Bartlett Ave. that was built by Miller Brewing Company in 1909 as an investment property.

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Urban Ecology Center Plans Event Venue

The Urban Ecology Center is looking to redevelop a Cream City brick warehouse near its East Side building into an events venue.

“The building will be marketed for corporate retreats, weddings and special life events,” says a submission to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BOZA). “The space can host up to 300 seated guests and will include a catering kitchen and meeting room for smaller groups.”

The UEC would also use the building, 1420 E. Park Pl., for educational programming, including guest lectures and seminars.

According to the BOZA filing, the nonprofit would invest any earnings from the programming into expanding its programming at its East Side (Riverside Park), Washington Park and Menomonee Valley branches.

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