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City of La Crosse renovation program highlights housing history

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City Renovation Program

The Andrjeski family, Melissa, Derek, Haley, 11, Lauren, 9, Jace, 7, and Maisy, 5, are moving into this renovated 1914 Dutch Colonial house in La Crosse’s Washburn neighborhood. The house is one of the first to be updated through the city’s renovation program.

When the Andrjeski family was looking for a new home in La Crosse, they wanted something move-in ready with more space. They didn’t expect to find a 100 years of history, complete with a connection to a family that grew up there.

The city of La Crosse is hosting an open house 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Andrjeski’s home at 1329 Farnam St. to share information on its housing renovation program. The house, built in 1914, is one of the first renovated though the program, rather than replaced.

“Working on the garage, I met three of the five children who lived here in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Derek Andrjeski.

Those were the children of Gene and Dorothy Fell, who reluctantly put their childhood home on the market last year after their mother moved into a nursing home.

Fell Family

The Fell family, now all grown up, poses outside their childhood home. Pictured are, from left, Maggie Braun, Tim Fell, Enid Heberlein, Carole Schoonover and Sue Kennedy.

“We love the house with the full basement and the upstairs. … It’s a good place to raise a family,” said Maggie Braun, the youngest of five Fell children.

Braun has fond memories of gathering in the kitchen for meals, hosting sleepovers and growing trees in the backyard, and finding privacy wherever they could.

“We had one telephone and we got a really long cord so we could talk in the stairwell,” Braun recalled.

They didn’t want to see the house, which is in the Holy Trinity-Longfellow Neighborhood, turned into a rundown rental property like so many others in La Crosse’s neighborhoods.

“We’re all committed to neighborhood living for families. We recognize the turnover of houses, especially in my mom’s neighborhood, the neighborhood we grew up in,” Braun said.

But when they took a look at the financial realities, keeping the house in the family just wasn’t in the cards. That’s when they reached out to the La Crosse Planning Department, hoping to find out if they would qualify for the city’s home rehabilitation program.

“The home had good bones,” said Caroline Gregerson, La Crosse’s community development administrator. “We didn’t want to see it torn down but it desperately needed to be modernized.”

The city bought it for $75,000, then sold it last September to private developer Construction Restoration Services for $40,000 on the condition that owner Dan Kalmes would complete the city’s mandated list of repairs and agree that the home will remain owner-occupied.

Turning the Dutch Colonial home with one tiny bathroom, narrow staircases and aging flooring was a serious challenge, especially as Kalmes looked to save the wood floors.

“I like taking things that look pretty rough and turning it into something,” Kalmes said.

It was something of a jigsaw puzzle, but one that Kalmes enjoyed.

“It was fun to do, just laying it out and trying to figure out what to do where,” Kalmes said.

City Renovation Program

Dan Kalmes, owner of Construction Restoration Services, bought this 1914 Dutch Colonial house for the City and performed a “gut-rehab” on the property.

Then Kalmes spotted a Nov. 5 “The Way it Was” feature in the La Crosse Tribune that featured another former resident, Sgt. Roy L. Vingers, a La Crosse County man who was among the first area casualties of World War I. His funeral was held in the house.

Kalmes printed out the article and framed it for the new owners, expecting they’d be interested to see what was going on in the house 100 years ago. What Kalmes didn’t expect was to have the neighbors and former occupants take so much interest, but it was neat to have them around, he said.

The neighborhood was a huge draw for the Andrjeski family. Melissa works just a few blocks away at Mount Calvary-Grace Lutheran School, which is also where their four kids, Haley, Lauren, Jace and Maisy, go to school.

“We love being by the library and the school and the park,” Melissa said.

Being able to walk everywhere is a huge bonus, and the new layout was amazing, she said.

“Dan let us in the day before the open house, and obviously you walk in and it’s absolutely stunning,” Derek said.

But walking through the house with its former residents was a real treat, showing the new owners just how much of a treasure the house is.

“They just couldn’t believe it. All of a sudden all the stories started coming out,” Derek said. “You could just see the throwback to when they were kids doing the same thing.”

Growing up in the 1960s, they didn’t have air conditioning, so they put a big box fan at the top of the stairs to keep the air circulating. More than once, one of Braun’s family members would forget to close the door and the fan would suddenly start blowing hot air, which would prompt the rest to shout, “Close the door!”

“It sounds silly. We all remember that sort of experience,” Braun said.

They demonstrated for the Andrjeskis, who were delighted, but also grateful for their air conditioning and green energy rating.

“You can see that it’s alive through the generations. It’s really great,” Derek said.

For Braun’s part, her family was thrilled to see the home go to a family who appreciated it.

“It looks really wonderful,” Braun 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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City government reporter

Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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