For many locals, a trip downtown means shopping, dining and maybe a glance at the stately brick facades. But few think to take their gaze a little higher, above the modern storefronts, to appreciate the true history of the buildings.
“I always get big gasps when I tell people to look up,” said Barb Kooiman, president of the Preservation Alliance of La Crosse. “People never think to look up.”
Kooiman had a group of 60 looking skyward Saturday morning during a a tour of the Historic Downtown in celebration of Preservation Month. Leading the crowd through a four-block loop, Kooiman pointed out the architectural detailing and ownership history of structures dating from the 1860s through the 1940s, with the buildings growing more modern as they move away from the river. Among the oldest are those at Second and Main streets, though many were torn down after the 1965 flood. Any building 50 years or older is a potential candidate for historic status, with 111 downtown buildings currently designated.
“I’ve lived here for 29 years and never thought to look at any of these buildings,” said Lana Buchner, who joined the tour with friends Sherri Cain and Patti Stange. “The preservation is really important to your history — it’s who you are and where you come from.”
“You travel somewhere and you research the history and take it in, but we never really did that in our hometown,” Stange added.
Many of the buildings once housed sample rooms, an old-fashioned name for bars. The 1886 George Zeisler building on south Fourth Street, formerly the Plank Road Brewery and Saloon, was designed in Italianate style and constructed of a soft red brick, which has suffered through sandblasting and moisture damage but retains its ornamental pediments and transom panels. Down the block stands the 1879 Pamperin Cigar building, detailed with an ornate metal cornice and dentiling, which manufactured cigars for almost 100 years and now houses The Toy Shop on the lower level and an apartment upstairs.
“See the step-up entrance?” Kooiman said. “That goes against the American Disabilities Act. They had to add a flat back entrance to accommodate wheelchairs.”
Many of the buildings have faced obstacles in remaining both historically preserved and up to current safety standards. The Bodega, built in the late 1870s and converted from a small grocery to a cafeteria to a bar, has had a vacant second floor since the 1940s, as it offers only one fire exit.
“People always ask the best questions about the modern use of these historic buildings and the upper levels,” Kooiman said. “It gives me a chance to talk about the roadblocks and safety issues, but also the tax credits available (to both restore and bring them up to code).”
The Court Above Main/Wedding Tree is one such example. Using credits from the city, the current owner of the building — once home to the YWCA on the second floor and a basketball court on the third floor — has created a combination wedding boutique/event space. Similarly, Duluth Trading Company has repurposed the Doerflinger building, a 1902 Chicago-commercial style structure characterized by large tri-part windows and steel eye beams.
“You can look at this building like a person,” Kooiman said. “The skeleton of structural steel, a skin of brick and lots of glass, and the electrical as the guts.”
The Romanesque style Batavian and McMillian/State banks at the corner of Fourth and Main, with limestone exteriors, were similarly sturdily constructed.
“When you have your hard-earned money, you want to put it in a building that’s going to be there forever,” Kooiman said of the 1880s structures. “They’re a sturdy fortress.”
In the 1950s, State Bank was refaced with a glossy black marble, before being restored to its original appearance in the ‘90s.
“They actually got stone from the same quarry in Indiana,” Kooiman marveled. “They really did a wonderful job bringing it back (to period).”
On Fifth Avenue, the buildings grow more modern, with cheaper concrete exteriors. The 1940 Moderne-style Exchange Building at Fifth and Jay has a sleek appearance, with a ribbon of curved windows.
“The streamlined look gives the feel of ‘nothing can stop me,’” Kooiman said. “The architecture gives a message of the times, reflective of the modern airplanes and cars.”
Some of the 21st century buildings downtown, including Subway and the Holiday Inn, were designed with the city in keeping with the historic feel, and the city continues to maintain the 1920s bubblers, cast by Torrance Casting, with a couple minor adjustments.
“They used to have a little dish built in the base with a spout for the dogs (to drink out of), but they had to take those out because they found that toddlers were using them,” Kooiman laughed.
It’s the nostalgia and emotion tied in with the buildings and accessories of the downtown that make preservation efforts so crucial, Kooiman said.
“(The district) really encapsulates that feeling about what is really beautiful about our river town,” Kooiman said. “This is our home. Bringing these places back — it can be done. It’s not impossible — unless they tear them down.”