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Pioneer Block

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1882, George Orff or Fremont Orff. 401–409 Water St.

The Chippewa Valley encompassed over one-third of the state’s total pinery, and mills began springing up in the 1830s and 1840s along the valley’s many waterways. Eau Claire began in 1846 as a sawmill at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers, though actual settlement lagged until the mid-1850s. The site lacked a major waterfall, but it had a natural log-storage facility in Half Moon Lake. The first railroad link came in 1870, and in 1878 the river was dammed to create a second, larger storage pond, Dells Lake. All the pieces were in place for Eau Claire to boom. Between 1880 and 1885, the city’s mills handled over half of the valley’s lumber output, and the population more than doubled.

Nicknamed “Sawdust City,” Eau Claire attracted fire. A devastating fire occurred in 1882, but the booming city bounced back. Merchants and professionals who had lost their shops and offices banded together and hired either George Orff of Minneapolis or his brother Fremont to design a new building, two stories tall and a half-block long. The creation of a single large structure, unified in design, to replace several smaller buildings reflected a general trend in downtown commercial architecture at the time. Completed a few months after the fire, the block reflects High Victorian Gothic influences. Sandstone accents lend color to the segmental-arched second-story window hoods. Brick pilasters rise to the height of the building, terminating in brick bartizans with metal finials. The pilasters divide the facade into five bays, each with a cast-iron storefront. Incised brick panels, bands of rowlock brickwork, a dentiled and corbeled cornice, and gabled parapets ornament the facade.

Writing Credits

Marsha Weisiger et al.


What's Nearby


Marsha Weisiger et al., "Pioneer Block", [Eau Claire, Wisconsin], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Wisconsin

Buildings of Wisconsin, Marsha Weisiger and contributors. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017, 370-371.

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