After returning from Oktoberfest a few years ago, Steve New was surprised to find a tipsy college student standing in his kitchen. Pointing to the back door, New asked him to leave and the man complied, but not before turning around and saying, “This is the weirdest house I’ve ever been in.”
Even by sober standards, New’s 20th and State Street home is a sight to behold, a colorful shrine to peace, love and happiness among a row of traditional homes. The facade is sided in bark, with bright yellow lettering along the fascia: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Whimsy is a way of life for New, his decor a reflection of his liberal beliefs and adventurous spirit. Peace signs and peace doves are featured prominently inside and out, as are flowers, butterflies and quirky crafts, including a massive tin spider, with a hand-painted smiley face, perched on the roof. A newly acquired Amish buggy is parked in the yard and serves as a planter, as do a wishing well and barrel swing.
“Most people get a kick out of it,” said New, 67, seated at his dining room table as incense burned and sitar music played in the background. “People are curious. I guess they like the difference of this house compared to the rest. When I moved in, it was like every other house in the neighborhood.”
A lifelong resident of La Crosse who has held jobs ranging from custodian to surgical technician and currently works for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the home is the first New has owned, and he immediately dove into decorating, starting simple with a split-rail fence 10 years ago and working his way up to a giant smiley face and Pippi Longstocking portrait on the chimney.
“Pippi is my hero,” explained New, whose license plate reads “Pippi.” “Independent, quirky — two of the greatest assets a person can have. I think she’s fascinating. I know she’s only make believe, but I think the character is fascinating.”
New also has a fondness for tropical and jungle themes, with tiki torches, bamboo curtains and animal print tapestries in the living room, and African masks and carvings hung on the dining room wall. A mannequin with the head of a horse is wrapped in a Mardi Gras boa and holds a stuffed monkey, and quotes can be found everywhere, including atop a large photo of New in a tandem skydive.
“’You skydive not to escape life, but to keep life from escaping you,’” New recited. “I’m afraid of heights. I simply did it because of the challenge.”
New has always sought out excitement, and chose the freedom to travel over marriage and having a family. New has lived in Australia and worked on an off-shore oil rig in Scotland and at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Saudi Arabia, and volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel, identifying with the quest for peace though raised Lutheran himself. His bucket list includes visiting India and Morocco, preferably as part of a trip around the world.
“I have a wanderlust for travel,” New said. “I wish I had two lives — I’d like to be happily married, but I decided to choose travel, and I think I made the right choice.”
New describes himself as both a hippie and very open-minded, attributes he credits to his upbringing.
“My parents gave me a lot of leeway when I was young. I appreciated that,” New said. “I’m heavily influenced by my mother. She was a peace activist.”
New considers his home a statement of peace in the tempestuous political climate. His outdoor flag of a crying Statue of Liberty is a nod to Trump’s presidency, and he plans to rotate back in his various anti-Trump paraphernalia, though room is becoming scarce.
“I’m running out of space,” New said. “I might have to get a bigger house.”
Despite his wealth of possessions, New can quickly pinpoint his favorite: a framed photo of his mother wearing a butterfly necklace, a Christian symbol of resurrection and a reflection of the free spirits of mother and son.
“If it came down to one thing, this is it,” New said of the picture. “I believe (the saying) is, ‘Here on Earth, you’re in a cocoon, and when you die you’re a butterfly ... you’re free, you’re free.’”