La Crosse made its mark as a gateway to the West, a railroad hub and Mississippi River port that linked Wisconsin’s farms, pineries, and factories to the markets of the Northern Plains. Its site, the level but flood-resistant Prairie La Crosse, was a longtime gathering place for the Ho-Chunks. In 1842, Nathan Myrick built a fur-trading post at what is now the corner of Front and State streets. More settlers arrived over the next two decades, drawn by Prairie La Crosse’s fertile soil and excellent riverboat landing. When the first railroad arrived in 1858 and then bridged the river in 1876, La Crosse became a booming industrial hub. Lumber milling was the largest industry, with sawmills lining the shore, and breweries, flour mills, freight yards, and warehouses crowded the waterfront too.
Mark Twain visited La Crosse in 1882 and felt inspired, in Life on the Mississippi (1883), to describe its buildings as “stately enough, and also architecturally fine enough to command respect in any city.” The turn of the twentieth century brought a robust modernism to downtown La Crosse, with materials that sparkle like gems in an older setting. In 1903 local architects Schick and Roth created the Doerflinger Building (400 Main), a department store, in the unadorned style of the Chicago School. Steel-frame construction allows light to pour in through large, tripartite Chicago windows. Nearby, the four-story Romanesque Revival Batavian Bank Building (1888; 319 Main) by Solon S. Beman of Chicago includes round arches that diminish in size as they rise, enhancing the bottom-heavy sense of mass and weight. (Arched openings on the first floor disappeared in 1927 when the entrance was remodeled.) The bank’s hallmarks include rough-cut stone walls, foliated ornament around the windows, a colonnaded arcade on the top floor, and a wide cornice. This solid-looking edifice fits the stature of the bank, which since its founding in 1862 helped finance much of La Crosse’s growth.
A lumberman built the stately Italianate Healey’s Block (1872–1878; 200–212 Main), now called Powell Place, which anchors the downtown’s western end. Ground-story store-fronts, framed by cast-iron columns and pilasters, give way to second-story basket-handle-arched windows with striking metal hoods. Square-notched brick corbeling and a bracketed metal cornice define the roofline. The interior has been rehabilitated as a mall.
The gaily painted Schwarz Building (1887; 205–209 Pearl Street) boasts an eclectic mix of Victorian details in its window hoods and pedimented, layered cornice. The Solberg Building (1870; 127–129 3rd Street South), now Markos Wholesale Clothing, is an impressive example of Italianate. Elaborate metal window hoods embellish the second story, while a medallion-studded frieze and twin-bracketed cornice define the roofline of the brick block.
The John Walter Building/Casino Bar (304 Pearl) began in 1878 as an Italianate commercial block but gained a memorable enamel-and-neon sign (“Casino, Lousy Service”) and a Moderne storefront in 1933. A window with glass block cuts into a wall of black Carrara glass, and the porthole in the door reflects the era’s fascination with steamships. The interior features a curvilinear bar, tiers of curved booths, and stylized lotus-blossom lamps.
The vogue for sleek design began in the 1920s, when manufacturing—of farm machinery, rubber goods, radiators, and more—brought prosperity back to La Crosse, which was followed by a new wave of construction, but this time in Art Deco and Moderne. The Exchange Building (1940; 201–205 5th Avenue S.) by J. Mantor Matson of Racine has a curved concrete facade and bands of windows to create a streamlined look. A stylized bull on the side of the pediment proclaims “Forward La Crosse.” Grooved and geometric ornamentation surrounds the main entrance, which leads to its original lobby and elevator. The five-story Hoelscher Building (1930; 115 5th Avenue S.), now the Scenic Center, by local architects Parkinson and Dockendorff, is especially striking, with its mosaic-studded spandrels and zigzag detailing at the roofline.
The Odin Oyen Building (1912; 507 Main), a rare Prairie Style commercial block, was designed by Percy Dwight Bentley. Bentley was influenced by Wright and Louis Sullivan when he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, which is evident here. At the second story, the windows are set deep into the wall, and slender columns divide this large rectangular opening. An oval cartouche, a leaded ribbon window, and a tile-covered pent roof further embellish the facade.