A La Crosse landmark noted for the flamingo-like hue that earned it the moniker of “the Pink Palace” is about to add a scholarly feature to its resume, which includes being an ornate home, sprouting wings for additional family living quarters that now are apartments, and serving as a home office.
Single women with children will be able to live at Three Rivers Scholars House — under a partnership among Shelter Development Inc., the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Self Sufficiency Program and Hope Academy at the Family and Children’s Center — as long as they are in educational programs.
Initial participants in the venture in the 1880s-era original house and additions at 907-927 Main St. will live in spacious bedrooms with their children in what once was the main house, with a common kitchen and expansive play areas.
The plan will not disrupt the lives of tenants in the 15 apartments surrounding the original house, say Rick Staff and his wife, Nancy Gerrard, who are co-owners of the building and principals of Gerrard-Hoeschler Realtors and Shelter Development.
“Some people have lived there for 30 years, and they will be able to stay as long as they want,” said Gerrard, co-owner of the realty firm.
If the Pink Palace’s 1960s-70s décor — much of which rivals the sets for the “Mad Men” TV show — could talk, it might reveal a variety of scripts ranging from the patter of little feet and children’s laughter, to swimming parties around its outdoor-now-indoor-but-covered pool to house negotiations and brokering at the desk of the late Dale Wernecke.
Wernecke and his wife, Patricia, had the pool covered when they had grandchildren to avoid any chance of a mishap, Staff said.
The pool once was outdoors, and little was changed except for covering it when the Werneckes had it enclosed. It remains the largest room in the house, with Staff noting, “It seems like it will create a common sense of community” when the women and children gather there.
In one corner is a large sauna, while one side has semi-circular steps up to a level that features a Jenn-Air outdoor grill that still works. Down the hallway, with walls covered with carpeting, are changing rooms, as well as a room decorated brightly with Age of Aquarius symbols where the children could rest.
The doors on the nearby restrooms are labeled “Gulls” and “Buoys.”
Gerrard recalled her own memory of the house from her childhood, saying, “I thought it was a hotel, with the connected wings and the pool.”
Staff and Gerrard, who have co-owned the house with another couple since closing on it July 15, founded the nonprofit Shelter Development last year in connection with Francis Homes, a venture to secure housing for homeless families.
Francis Homes’ mantra is that no child should be homeless.
Although Three Rivers is not part of Francis Homes, it is founded on the same philosophy, Staff said: “to support the women and to help the kids.”
“We are looking for tenants who may want to work with families in the basement offices,” he said, stressing the need to provide support services for the women and children, Staff said.
“The house rules include a sense of what we need to do to help the women become successful,” Staff said of the house, a major step in fulfilling the couple’s vision.
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“What motivated us way back was we were looking for properties for these types of uses,” she said. “We always have had community service as a goal. Finally, we found the right fit.”
The couple approached many agencies in the Coulee Region before connecting with the UW-L and FCC programs. The building drew enthusiastic reactions from the agencies, but they passed on the opportunity for one reason or another, Staff said.
“Everybody agreed that it is the coolest place in the world,” he said, noting general agreement that it would make a “phenomenal frat house,” with its numerous and spacious rooms, nooks and crannies throughout.
That wasn’t an option for the couple, who now want those nooks and crannies to become study areas for the moms and play and reading areas for their children when the plan comes together, perhaps around the first of the year, the couple said.
“I’m excited about it,” said Andrea Hansen, who coordinates UW-L’s Self Sufficiency Program. “It’s not for a lot of people, but it’s a start.”
The program, in which participants meet two nights a week, is intended to provide pre-college education for low-income, single parents so they can mull the possibilities of attending college, she said.
“We’re trying to lower the barriers as much as we can,” Hansen said. “It’s a struggle, and it’s really hard to go to school when they have to relocate a family three or four times. It’s hard to be a parent, and probably a worker and a student.”
The UW-L campus doesn’t have family housing,” she said, adding that “having that option is really great.”
Three Rivers can provide a stable environment for the mothers and their children, removing that survival stressor from their lives and allowing them to concentrate, she said. SSP participants, numbering a dozen this semester, are eligible for $500 scholarships to attend college, she said.
“It’s a chance to reinforce their decision to pursue education and provide stability,” Hansen said. “A mother’s education level affects whether a kid” chooses the same path.
Asked about the accoutrements of the Pink Palace, Hansen said with a laugh, “Well, it’s unique. I’ve looked at it about five times, and I can think of the stories the kids will be able to tell their own children.”
Hansen marveled at the community support Three Rivers is gaining, with an advisory board and Shelter Development.
“They all know intuitively that we should support poor people to help them get more control of their lives,” she said. “The housing piece makes so much sense.”
Staff also lauded community contributions, including the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in their expanding role as movers, shakers and a collective conscious, as well as free and/or reduced rates from Maxwell-White Plumbing Inc. in West Salem, Builders Flooring Inc. in Onalaska, P and T Electric in La Crescent and Coughlin Home Services.
“The Scholars House is located in a strategic place for our community, positioned in a great way with three education institutions” surrounding it — Western Technical College and Viterbo University in addition to UW-L, she said.
“That’s great in a small community, so we have to take advantage of it,” she said.