Rediscovering The National Home

A sign reading, “Beware of Asbestos” greeted an inquisitive historian as he peered through the glass door of the long-abandoned hospital. “No Entry Without Respirator” or “Danger” signs were seen on neighboring buildings – such as brick barracks, mess-halls, and other long abandoned structures. For the historian it was difficult to imagine how much neglect and length of abandonment must have occurred for the once majestic medical campus to become the poster-child for decay.
B&W photo of men standing and sitting in a group.
Veterans banter at a NHDVS facility, circa 1900.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Over the past nine months Brian McCutchen, of the Midwest Region’s National Historic Landmark (NHL) program, has visited numerous historic federal veterans homes that were originally part of a mostly forgotten agency – the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS) system. His visits are part of an assessment of significance study to document the history of the former system, analyze the historic resources of each campus, and to rate properties for their “integrity,” or how well they convey the NHDVS story. Those NHDVS properties with the highest degree of integrity will be considered for NHL designation.

The Homes, eventually numbering eleven nation-wide, were established by Congress between 1865 and 1929 to care for disabled veterans and homeless veterans. The design, administration, and scope of the branch homes evolved over time as new demands on eligibility and services arose. In 1930, the NHDVS Properties ceased to be independent entities when they combined with the Veterans Bureau into the new United States Veterans Administration.
Tall building with many windows.
The old main block of the NHDVS NW branch, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa 1905 that still towers over the campus.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Partnerships involved in bringing this study to fruition are quite impressive. The National Park Service is serving as the lead agency while the Department of Veterans Affairs is assisting through an Interagency Agreement. A third partner – the National Council on Public History, is working closely with the MWR office and has contracted with historian Dr. Suzanne Julin to serve as primary researcher and author of the resulting study and nominations.

According to Brian, “Suzanne [Julin] and I have had the opportunity to view these campuses behind-the-scenes as few researchers probably have. Some buildings are truly mothballed and in decay, while others have undergone adaptive reuse, are fully functional and retain much of their ambiance.” In determining the historical integrity of a property an example used by Brian and Suzanne is, “If you could ‘plop’ a former resident here, such as a Civil War veteran, and they recognized where they were – that is good integrity.” It is estimated that of the eleven NHDVS properties studied, three or four may be recommended for consideration as NHLs.

For almost seventy years the NHDVS campuses served as much more than residential care facilities. They were living monuments of appreciation to the veterans who served their country.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 1, 2006, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Brian K. McCutchen.