Ken Riley, Jay Lokken and Dick Record are treasure hunters. As RLR Properties, they buy up old buildings, look for traces of the past, and restore the buildings to their glory days.
And like treasure hunters of yore, they have to look for clues because often their treasure is buried beneath shoddy partitions, cheap linoleum and decades of grime.
Lokken and Riley have been restoring old houses in La Crosse for years, buying up derelict properties converted to apartments and bringing them back to stately grandeur. They started out doing it one house at a time, living in the house they were restoring and then moving on to the next project, always discovering another old wreck that needed attention and historic restoration. Along the way, Riley said, long-time friend Record was admiring their work and giving advice.
“Dick has been a friend forever, and we’d drag him along on all these projects. About two years ago, we formed RLR because we’re interested in doing more projects. We just went faster,” he said, once Record joined the team. Now they’re churning through the shoddy remnants of past transformations to bring back the original architectural intent.
“The goal is to turn them into single-family homes,” Riley said, and when that’s not possible, at least make them historically correct rentals.
“We have a serious vision and that’s to revitalize neighborhoods,” he said. “To take all the blighted properties and put them back together.”
Their latest project is the Cargill-Pettibone House at 145 S. Eighth St., and this is a monster of a restoration with a couple of stumbling blocks to overcome. It sat empty for many years after being converted to apartments because most people viewed it as 6,000 square feet of impossibilities, which leads to stumbling block number one — no driveway and no garage.
So the most likely scenario, and the one RLR is moving forward with now, is to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. There is always the possibility that someone will come along and ask to buy the restored property, but for now the best use is the B&B — it offers the most opportunities for history lovers to sample its architecture.
Even amid the dust and opened-up walls, the elegance of what it can once again be is obvious.
Yes, they have to open up closed-up porches, tear down partitions, replace doors that were removed and remove doors that were added.
They have done this before and they are willing and able to do it all again as they continue their treasure hunt, finding original shutters, uncovering beautifully veneered floors, and researching the storied pasts of the houses they resuscitate.
From big to small
RLR doesn’t require a property to be large in order to acquire it and restore it. It just so happens that many of the oldest properties in the city’s downtown core are large because they are commercial buildings or they are mansions built by lumber barons.
One such example is the mansion at 1434 Cass St. If you got inside that house many months ago when the estate sale was held, you surely noticed the rotten window sills and the shabby appearance of the main floor.
No more. RLR went to work and started its transformation back to the glory days.
“We gutted the main floor and redid it,” Riley said.
And Dahli Durley is now reaping the rewards of their labors.
“I’ve lived in La Crosse since 2008, and I’ve always loved that house,” Durley said. “There’s just something about that corner house I’ve always loved.”
So one night, tired of sharing a house with several other people, she retired to her room and started looking online for a new housing opportunity.
“I had no idea that was an apartment building,” she said, but she knew it was exactly what she was looking for.
“I called the next day,” she said, and met with Riley.
“We were walking out the door and the tenant moved in,” Riley said.
“He and Jay are so magical. They’re fresh and fabulous,” Durley said.
And having worked in the lumber business herself, the house of a lumber baron seemed the perfect fit for her.
“We really blended and that was that. I’ve rented a lot and been a lot of places. It’s hard to find landlords that care about you and care about the property. (RLR) always do the maintenance and none of that is cheap. Everyone thinks the world of Ken and Jay. There are people who have worked with them for a long time and they have great relationships.”
The bonus, she said, was the historic nature of the apartment she now calls home.
“The opportunity to be able to rent and live in a home like that, I’ve never had that before. The lighting is great, the architecture inside is wonderful. I probably won’t be able to rent a place like that again.”
Downtown is where they want to be
Kareena Sheely and Mary Larson also enjoy being tenants of RLR Properties, but in their case they rent commercial space. They have shops in 531-535 Main St. across from St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral. Sheely and her partner, Hanna Compton, operate Prairie La Crosse, and Larson and her husband, Josh, operate Full Circle Supply.
“I was in California last Christmas when I saw the ad on Craig’s List,” said Sheely, who was looking to take her business from the Internet to bricks-and-mortar. “It was perfect and it’s been great ever since. We get a lot of compliments on our storefront,” she said, which was stripped down and brought back to its original façade. “It’s perfect for starting out for first-time business owners.”
And it just got even more perfect, Sheely said, because she and her husband Landon moved to the apartment above the store this month.
“It’s great being close to work, the convenience of being able to walk downstairs.”
“And Ken is an amazing landlord. He helps us with anything we need. He’s there to answer questions. I’m excited to be renting from him.”
Larson said her space in the building is “a dream space. We just got lucky that we were able to move out of our old space and start renting” from RLR. “I just love the building. I love the history. I love everything about it. It’s the perfect size. I’ve always been fascinated with the history of La Crosse and the nice, historic charm downtown. I know for Ken and Jay, that’s really important to them.
“I’m glad there are people who are willing to do that.”
History behind partnership
Not just willing, but eager.
Walking through the dusty, in-progress Cargill-Pettibone House, Riley, Lokken and Record are themselves awed by what they have uncovered.
Tall ornate windows that are as large as doors provide views out to Eighth and King streets, letting in a filtered gray winter light that illuminates the entire first floor. Shutters for the windows were found in storage upstairs and will be restored to the windows. A walled-off door is being restored and makeshift walls and doors are being taken down. Long-ago bricked-up porches will be restored and paint will be removed from the exterior brick.
For now, dust and decades of grime cover many of the surfaces, but Lokken rubs a bit of dust away from the thinly veneered floor in what was the library. It’s laid in an intricate pattern of maple, oak and walnut and Lokken plans to get down on his hands and knees and clean it with steel wool and denatured alcohol because it is too thin to sand. He has done it before and knows his efforts will bring back the patina of the floor’s glory days. And veneer can be harvested from damaged floors in other rooms so that this floor can be repaired.
You don’t do this because you can make a quick buck, Lokken said. You do this because the house demands it and they can’t be happy with doing less than the house deserves. Luckily for them, there are other history lovers in La Crosse. They may not be willing to or capable of doing the restorations themselves, but they are eager to live in these spaces.
“I think there’s a huge market for this now,” Lokken said.
And after years of standing on the sidelines, Record finally joined the partnership. Why not, he said. “I’m semi-retired and needed something to do.”
It takes energy and connection and resources, and these three have all of that.
“Everything is falling into place,” Riley said. “We just want to keep on doing this.”
For Riley, a teacher by profession, restoration is not as foreign as it may sound.
“My family’s business is construction. My dad was always trying to get me involved and I hated every part of it,” he said with a laugh.
“Except when I went on a demo job. I would beg him to let me go through before and pull out stuff. I always knew I wanted to save houses and put things back together.”
Lokken and Record also like to put things back together.
“Dick is so eclectic,” Riley said. “He has a love of modern, contemporary, and he also appreciates the old. As we’re doing the Cargill-Pettibone, he doesn’t say much,” Riley said, but when he does, it always makes good sense.
“He’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, where is the bathroom going?’ So it’s a perfect match,” said Riley, who would gobble up a crumbling old building every day if he could. “I’m more aggressive, Jay is more conservative, which has been good for us. And then there’s Dick, who is both. If the three of us agree on something, we know it’s right.”
Even though they are elbow deep in the Cargill-Pettibone restoration, that go-go-go mentality of Riley’s is showing.
“We’re making an offer on the Batavian Bank Building.”
Ideas are bubbling for that project all the while he is thinking of the painting he has yet to do at the Cargill-Pettibone house.
Record, too, sees the possibilities of the Batavian Bank building, and suggests the most obvious.
“Sell it to a bank.”