The Londres were working outside their home at Seventh and Johnson streets when a teacher from Hamilton Early Learning Center on the opposite corner stopped by.
While it was nice to see the old property being fixed up, she said she would miss bringing her students over around Halloween to “draw the scary old house,” Steve Londre said with a chuckle.
The three-story, Victorian-style home at 1028 S. Seventh St. was in foreclosure and likely on its last legs when Andrew Londre and his parents, Steve and Karen, bought it from the bank in December 2011 for $75,000 to become Andrew’s home.
Unknown to them at the time, the Preservation Alliance of La Crosse had named the house one of area’s most endangered properties, at risk of falling so far into disrepair that demolition might be its most likely fate.
Current PAL President Barbara Kooiman and Director Dan Estep toured the home when it went on the market.
The inside of the six-bedroom, two-bath former rental property was in shambles. The floors and woodwork were darkened and dingy, the wallpaper ripped and gouged. Holes had been punched in several walls, including a crude attempt to inset the refrigerator in the kitchen. Every room seemed to have a cracked window pane or two.
“It smelled horrible,” Kooiman added.
And this was after the bank reportedly had spent $700 to clean up the place enough to allow anyone inside, Steve Londre said.
“It was quite a daunting task,” he said, “when we walked in that first day.”
Yet the years of neglect and abuse couldn’t quite shroud the ornate woodwork that surrounded each door and window and made up the paneled main staircase. The four fireplaces each had artisan tiles, the floors in the parlor and dining room intricate patterns of alternating light and dark wood strips.
“That led me to believe it was a really grand place at one time,” Estep said.
That impression has been borne out with research — it turned out the home was built in 1885 by one of La Crosse’s earliest settlers, Milford E. Mosher, who made his fortune in lumber during the logging boom — and work, the Londres said.
Lots of work.
They stripped the stained floors on the main level and painted walls that had been covered with dark, deteriorating wallpaper to lighten up the spaces and set off the woodwork. They didn’t refinish the woodwork itself, just polished it with copious amounts of Murphy’s Oil Soap to remove the layers of grime, they said.
The kitchen’s high ceiling remains the original pressed metal. They peeled off a layer of plaster on the wall behind the stove to reveal a backdrop of warm, red brick — the back of the fireplace in the adjacent dining room.
While only Andrew Londre and his fiancée live in the home, the second floor has been converted into office and meeting space for Karen Londre’s business, Reaching Your Potential LLC.
They’re working on the third level now, thought to once have been the servants’ quarters. They opted here to cover the badly stained floors with a coat of gray paint, but Karen Londre still meticulously scraped and stripped down any painted-over hardware, as she had done elsewhere in the house.
The scraping continued on the exterior as well, as the old paint had a high lead content, Andrew Londre said.
They’re not sure how much money or how many hours they’ve spent so far on the house, but Steve Londre called it “a labor of love.”
“It’s been something we’ve been able to do together,” said the elder Londre, who works the natural gas fuel island for Kwik Trip.
They’ve been thrilled by what the home has revealed to them in return.
Even small fixtures — hinges, the curved sash lifts for opening and closing windows, pull handles for the sliding pocket doors — are etched or imprinted with tiny decorative patterns.
“Every so often, there will be something new I’ll notice, some little touch,” Andrew Londre said.
“Homes that were built then have so much more character that you can’t find now.”
While not a historic restoration, they have tried to keep to the original Victorian look “within reason,” the Londres said. The crimson carpeting studded with gold dots in the front entrance, for example, is new but chosen because it “just seemed right,” Steve Londre said.
That’s enough, the pair from PAL said. It’s a common misconception that buying a historic home obligates the owner to make it look like it once was, both stressed.
“Preservationists don’t live in a bubble,” Estep said. “We know it has to be viable.”
“I’d rather see a building simply saved ... the intent, the spirit of that building’s history,” Kooiman said. “Hang on to what you have.”
It was sheer coincidence Andrew’s parents began looking for an investment property at the same time the house came up for sale and caught the PAL’s attention. Their son, then
a La Crosse County Economic Development intern and working with the former Joint Neighborhood Task Force, recommended the Powell-Poage-Hamilton as a place where they might find a decent house at a low price.
“In retrospect, it was a smart investment to make,” Steve Londre said.
Though not one they plan to cash in on anytime soon. Andrew Londre and his fiancée, Romi Pattison, intend to raise a family in the home after they marry in August. He nominated the house earlier this year as a historic landmark with the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission.
And he’s invested himself in the new neighborhood, running successfully for the District 9 County Board seat in 2012 and later vice president of the Powell-Poage-Hamilton Neighborhood Association and a PAL director. He also began working for Couleecap Inc. after recently graduating from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
It demonstrates how saving such homes can yield multiple benefits for the entire community, bringing in new residents, improving the look of problem properties and often prompting neighbors to make improvements as well, the PAL officials said.
“What often will happen in a case like this is it becomes inspirational,” Kooiman said. “The next thing you know, it’s a nicer neighborhood.”
The Preservation Alliance of La Crosse is working to identify more properties like the Mosher house and the former James Vincent house at 1024 Cass St. where Estep now lives, before they reach the point of being at risk.
“It was at that critical point where it could have been destroyed,” Estep said of the Londres’ home on Seventh Street. “If we can avoid that happening, then people end up with some really nice properties. … We want to make sure these places are protected.”