The first building in what is now the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was originally approved for construction by President Abraham Lincoln just one month before the end of the Civil War, for the care of disabled soldiers. That structure was completed in 1869.
Originally called the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and nicknamed the “Old Main,” the Zablocki VAMC now consists of 20 buildings.
Last week, it was time for an inspection of Building 7 – the Soldiers’ Home. Like Buildings 2 and 5, it was built as a barracks for soldiers receiving care at the Milwaukee Soldiers Home. Consisting of three stories and a large basement foundation, the Soldier’s Home, designed by celebrated architect Henry Koch, was ready for business in 1888. Building 7 now supports the offices of the Compensated Work Therapy Department. New IT requirements require the VAMC to update the structural integrity of some of the older buildings.
To that end, Forest Products Laboratory Research General Engineers Bob Ross and Adam Senalik took the 90-minute drive to Milwaukee to join Erik Billstrom, on-site engineer for the VA, to carry out the necessary structural analyses.
According to Bob and Adam, FPL regularly receives requests for structural condition assessments, mostly dealing with historic wood structures, structural assessment, inspection, and assignment of allowable design values.
“We usually try to provide direct assistance to other Federal agencies and Departments,” said Bob. “This is especially true for the DoD and Veterans’ Administration.
“What matters most here,” added Bob, “is that this campus does good things for veterans.” The Zablocki VAMC serves more than 64,000 U.S. veterans every year.
Bob added that the book he coauthored, Wood and Timber Condition Assessment Manual, now in its second edition, summarizes structural condition assessment research currently used for wood and timber structures. The publication can be found at: https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/fplgtr/fpl_gtr234.pdf. A previous FPL LabNotes article provides a summary of the manual here: https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/labnotes/?p=4599.
Starting on the third floor of building 7, the three engineers began to examine the condition of the walls and ceiling.
“It’s in pretty bad shape,” said Adam. “But about what we expected.” Previous engineering analyses had found that the structural beams were not designed for heavy weight.
The group then climbed up into the dark attic above the third floor and removed a few samples of wood. The blackened strips of wood appeared as if they had been in a fire.
“Maybe they were at one time,” observed Bob. “Further analysis will tell us.”
Satisfied with their inspection and the samples they had acquired, the analysts moved down to the utility room on the basement level. Here, the late 19th-century origins of the building were even more apparent, with period arches and a brick wall that had survived more than a century of water damage. The wall appeared not unlike a medieval dungeon in its heavily “blurred” condition.
Erik set up and climbed a tall step ladder to examine a large white pine timber across the ceiling of the basement. He reached in and was able to effortlessly lift spacers out of the surrounding structure. Finally, the three engineers placed all their gathered samples into large, labeled plastic bags.
“It was a good inspection,” Adam concluded. “I only hope that this building can be saved.”