More than two decades after he first set his sights on it, Ken Riley is restoring La Crosse’s Batavian building to its original glory.
Riley is the managing partner of the historic renovation firm RLR Properties, which purchased the former bank at 319 Main St. last year.
Earlier this year, he began a $750,000 top to bottom renovation. Workers are currently busy reconfiguring the third floor from nine offices to four.
“We pulled it all apart and put it back to its original footprint,” Riley said. “We’re not ripping down old. We’re just repairing what was there.”
Along the way, workers have removed drop ceilings to expose the full 8-foot tall windows. They’ve replaced missing trim and doors with the originals, which Riley found stashed in the basement.
“We got really lucky,” Riley said. “We had to dig for it.”
Workers have also completed a wood-paneled board room with a carved plaster ceiling and restored the cab of the manual elevator after plans to replace it with an automated model proved too expensive. The two operators, Milt and Fritz, will keep their jobs.
“Part of the charm of this building is the elevator,” Riley said. “I’m glad we kept it.”
The five-story building, completed in 1888, was built by the Batavian Bank, which for more than a century was the city’s oldest and largest financial institution. It conveys a “feeling of massiveness and strength that is advantageous to a bank,” architectural historian Les Crocker wrote of it.
Most of the second floor was removed in a 1928 renovation that also moved the front entrance and added an elevator. The bank also installed what was said to be the largest and heaviest vault in Wisconsin, featuring a 27-ton door and a “sound wave burglar alarm” so sensitive its gong could be activated by tapping a hammer on the outside wall.
An adjacent building was demolished and replaced with a one-story annex during a second renovation completed in 1959 that also sheathed the building with a sleek facade and included the city’s first drive-thru teller windows.
Launched in 1862 by Gysbert van Steenwyk, the bank was named for a Teutonic tribe from its founder’s native Holland. It was eventually acquired by the First Bank System and dropped Batavian from its name.
In 1984, the bank moved into a 10-story, $12 million office tower bearing its name at Second and Main streets. The name was changed to U.S. Bank in 1998 after the Minneapolis-based First Bank System merged with U.S. Bancorp.
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The Batavian was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Though altered over time, the building is architecturally significant as an example of the Romanesque revival style and the work of Chicago architect Solon Beman, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Architecture and History Inventory.
‘The stars finally aligned’
Riley said the property first caught his eye in the early 1990s when he got together with his partner, Jay Lokken.
“We’ve always loved the building,” he said. “We thought one of the most significant, architectural gems in the city.”
Riley recalls it was available for about $72,000, including back taxes, but he wasn’t confident downtown revitalization would pan out.
“Downtown La Crosse was not what it is today,” he said. “I sure wish we’d bought it then.”
In the meantime, Riley and Lokken have completed more than a dozen historic renovations, including their own home at 938-950 Cass St. Last year they joined with Dick Record on a complete overhaul of the Cargill-Pettibone mansion at Eighth and King streets.
Riley said he never gave up home of someday owning the Batavian, and last year RLR finally purchased it for $415,000 from another investor group that included Mike Keil.
“The stars finally aligned,” Riley said.
Keil, the developer behind the successful renovation of the Doerflinger Building, said he bought the Batavian in 2005 with the intention of restoring but never pursued it.
“The building certainly has a lot of potential,” he said. “It could be something really spectacular for the city of La Crosse.”
Over the next two years, RLR plans to renovate the first floor, replacing the decorative plaster medallions that once adorned the 30-foot lobby ceiling, installed when most of the second floor was removed in the 1928 renovation.
“In the ‘20s the lobby was spectacular,” Riley said. “What we’re doing is undoing everything they did in the ‘50s.”
Long-range plans include a five-story addition atop the annex, which houses Generous Earth Pottery, that will cater to the burgeoning demand for downtown residential housing.
“It’s going to be very, very different,” he said. “But it’s going to fit in beautifully.”