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Old Main

The West Salem Adult Jazz Band, including vocalist Eric Sorenson, right, perform in front of Old Main, formerly a building for Gale College in Galesville. A fundraiser to add an elevator to the structure built in 1862 will be held Saturday.

In a way, the story of Old Main Historical and Community Arts Center is the story of the city of Galesville, in which it resides.

Elmer Petersen

Petersen

Both were founded by Judge George Gale in the 1850s and both have a historic character that doesn’t come along every day, according to longtime Galesville residents Wade Britzius and Elmer Petersen. The two men are among those hoping to raise money to add an elevator to the building during an event from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Old Main.

“It’s just got charm and presence and a feeling of history as a building,” said Britzius, who headed a committee dedicated to its restoration for six years.

Located on the edge of town, the structure built using stone from a local quarry has lovely architecture and a connection to Galesville’s beginnings. Old Main opened in 1862 as Galesville University — later called Gale College — offering classes in music, arts, law and other topics.

“You can imagine college students running up and down the stairs,” Britzius said.

Gale himself taught law in the building, which housed one of the oldest colleges in the state.

“The University of Wisconsin in Madison was before that, but not by much,” Britzius said.

A number of different churches took over the administration of the college through its history before the school closed permanently in 1939 due to mounting debts. Two years later, St. Louis Province of the Society of Mary purchased the school, turning it into a novitiate to train Catholic brothers and priests. In 1973, it was turned into a retreat and conference center; however, that closed in 1994 and the college was sold to the city of Galesville in 1995.

“Different people kept it going in various ways,” Britzius said. “It’s a beautiful stone building. It’s got some lovely architecture.”

Petersen is known throughout the La Crosse area for his sculptures like “Lacrosse Players,” and the sculpture of George C. Poage in his namesake park and the eagle in Riverside Park; however, he has lived in Galesville since 1993.

“Galesville is a charming town, with the city square and the lake in there,” Petersen said.

Old Main is among his favorite places in the town; he called it a “significant center.”

Petersen sculpted founder George Gale, and his piece was placed in the center of the front lawn in 2014, halfway down the sidewalk that leads to the front door.

Nowadays, art-lovers and musicians are doing the running up and down on the stairs. The building serves as a center for the arts in Galesville, hosting concerts and other events, especially on the top floor.

“It’s such a charming old auditorium. When the Catholics had the facility, they had a sanctuary up there,” Britzius said.

The auditorium, which was restored in the early 2000s, has great acoustics and can seat about 100 people, making it a wonderful place to highlight regional talent. However, the 155-year-old building was built before elevators were commonplace, creating accessibility issues for people who can’t make it up two flights of stairs.

“There’s a nice, wide stairway like an old-fashioned school, but still it’s prohibitive. And it’s prohibitive to some musicians who need to carry instruments,” Britzius said.

The idea for an elevator has been considered for some time, he said, with the restoration committee even going so far as to get designs from a local architect. Because of the size of the building, it will need an addition to house the elevator; the design also includes a fire escape stairwell and restrooms on the third floor. Estimates a few years ago said the project will cost more than $900,000 and Britzius said costs have likely gone up.

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“We’d like to raise more than a million dollars,” he said.

While ambitious, it’s an important project as community members hope to support the center’s growing popularity.

“It makes it easier and accessible for the elderly, we’ll call it. Of course, I’m elderly myself, but I don’t feel like it,” Petersen said.

Petersen will turn 90 years old Sept. 4 and has decided to turn the occasion into a community fundraiser for the center for the arts, asking for donations to build the elevator addition rather than gifts.

“I think mostly because that’s where they have the arts — the theater and arts on the top floor — but they also show artwork. It’s really good for the arts,” Petersen said.

The artist was reflecting on his good fortune going into his 90th year.

Old Main

The third-story auditorium at Old Main on the former campus of Gale College in Galesville will be accessible to all patrons if an elevator is installed in the historic building.

“It’s just pure luck. I’ve had a good life, and it just seems like it’s unplanned good luck. Just things happened along the way that were all good,” Petersen said.

The exception to that was his wife Carole’s death after an eight-year battle with cancer at age 61, when Petersen was 72.

“That was bad, but as far as for me personally and my work, things just kind of went along somehow, and I never worried about things too much, so that’s how it happened,” Petersen said.

Everyone is invited to the party, especially those who have some connection with Petersen’s time as a sculptor in the La Crosse area.

“There’s going to be food like at an art show opening, no more, no less,” Petersen said.

That means hors d’oeuvres and other light refreshments, like coffee, lemonade and water. He’ll also set up a video screen with a loop of his work.

“A lot of people don’t know what I’ve done, and I think that once they start looking at it, they might want to stick around and see more,” Petersen said.


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Jourdan Vian can be reached at jvian@lacrossetribune.com or follow her on Twitter at @Jourdan_LCT.

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Reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering crime and courts for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218 or jvian@lacrossetribune.com.

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