Northwestern Branch: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

"Old Main" at the Northwestern Branch Photo by James Rosenthal

Quick Facts
5000 W. National Ave. in Milwaukee, WI
Established in 1867, the Northwestern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (now the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center) was the second of the original three branches established by the newly formed Board of Managers. Located on the west side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the 400 acre campus sits just south of the Milwaukee Brewer’s Miller Park baseball stadium and the Silurian Fossil Reef, a geological site designated as the Soldiers’ Home Reef National Historic Landmark. While the Eastern Branch was the first National Home branch to open, the Northwestern Branch was the first National Home branch that the Board of Managers had designed and built. The grand Victorian Gothic Main Building (Building 2), referred to as Old Main, continues to be the focal point of the campus. The National Cemetery is found on the southern border of the VA facility. 

Milwaukee became the site of the Northwestern Branch due to the combined efforts of the West Side Soldiers Aid Society and George Walker, a member of the Board of Managers. Dedicated to assisting Civil War soldiers, the West Side Soldiers’ Aid Society provided meals, supplies and medical care in several rented storefronts during the war. Determined to build a permanent State soldiers home, they incorporated as the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home and held a month long Sanitary Fair that raised $100,000. Before construction began, George Walker, a Milwaukee native, convinced the society to contribute their resources to the new National Home, rather than build a State home.

Thomas Budd Van Horne, Civil War chaplain and well-known landscape architect, designed the grounds and cemetery in a Picturesque style. He used the varied topography of the campus to create curving paths and roads lined with trees and a relaxing, scenic setting. Van Horne left portions of the campus as naturally wooded areas, but created manicured lawns and formal flowerbeds immediately surrounding the buildings. The northern and eastern portions of the campus were left for farming use. Milwaukee did not have an urban park system at the time the Northwestern Branch opened. The grounds became a place for the community to visit -- for picnics, strolls, band concerts, dancing at the dance hall, Fourth of July celebrations, and rowing boats on the lake. 

Milwaukee architect Edward Townsend Mix designed the first buildings for the new National Home branch. Built in 1867-1868, the Governor’s Quarters (Building 39) is a melding of the Italianate and Queen Anne styles. It is still used as the Medical Center Director’s Quarters.  The five-story, multicolored Gothic Revival style Main Building (built 1867-1869) was designed to house all the functions of the Northwestern Branch. Mix felt that having everything in one building would be more efficient. The Main Building (Building 2) contained the dormitories, administrative offices, kitchen, dining hall, chapel, and meeting hall. However, as the Northwestern Branch grew, the Board of Managers adopted the decentralized plan used at other branches. Barracks, a hospital, headquarters, theater, library and recreation hall were built to the south and west of the Main Building. 

During the first year the Northwestern Branch was open, 212 veterans lived there. By 1877, 1307 veterans resided at the Branch. Eventually, the population outgrew the capacity of the original buildings. 

In 1879, the Home began a building campaign that lasted nearly 20 years. Henry C. Koch was the primary architect for the buildings constructed in the last quarter of the 19th century. His design and placement of the new buildings complemented the Picturesque style landscape. The styles and detailing he chose generally were more utilitarian than what Mix had used. Koch designed a new hospital (Building 6) in the Italianate style. Located west of the Main Building, his hospital now contains administrative offices. Completed in 1896, the Headquarters Building (Building 1) is in the Renaissance Revival style and is used as office space for service organizations.

Koch designed the two-story Ward Memorial Hall (Building 41) in the Victorian Gothic style. Initially, it contained a store and railroad ticket office on the first floor and a flat floored assembly hall on the second floor. In 1887, the Grand Army of the Republic donated a stained glass window of General Grant, which was installed on the second story of the east side of the Hall. In 1897, the second floor was removed and balconies, an enlarged stage, and dressing rooms were added. Koch also designed new barracks (Buildings 5 and 7) constructed in 1884 and 1888, the Shingle style Chapel (Building 12) built in 1889, and the Colonial Revival style Social Hall (Building 4) built in 1894. 
Originally, nursing duties were performed by male residents. In 1890, the Northwestern Branch contracted with the Wisconsin Training School for Female Nurses to employ professional female nurses. This experiment was so successful that the rest of the National Home branches soon followed suit. 

By 1916, the veteran population had declined so much that the Board of Managers considered closing the Northwestern Branch. However, the onset of World War I and the need for more medical facilities changed their minds. In 1923, a tuberculosis hospital was built on the southern edge of the property. A ward was created for female veterans who served as nurses during World War I. About a dozen female veterans lived at the Northwestern Branch in 1924. 

Until 1871, veterans from the Northwestern Branch were buried in private cemeteries in Milwaukee. In 1871, Thomas Van Horne designed a cemetery in the northwest corner of the grounds. He created straight rows of graves with a central monument, continuing in a Picturesque style with tree lined curvilinear roads. In 1900, a reception building was constructed for visitors to the cemetery. A Soldiers and Sailors Monument was erected in 1903. In 1937, the government formally named the cemetery Wood Cemetery. 

A modern hospital and buildings constructed after 1930 are located on the southernmost end of the grounds, separated from the historic district by distance and topography. Many of the original buildings are intact, including the Main Building and the Governor’s House, the oldest remaining buildings constructed under the oversight of the National Home Board of Managers.

Last updated: November 21, 2017