News Column

Signs tell history of King Street buildings

June 27, 2014

By Patrick B. Anderson, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

June 27--Bill Bruring found remnants of a former life while trying to plant an evergreen.

Under the land between two apartment buildings, Bruring's shovel struck the limestone foundation of a home nearly as old as the Civil War.

Bruring's real estate investment quickly became a real-life history lesson after the 1985 discovery, sending Bruring on a journey through records tracking back to La Crosse's earliest days. Bruring has since sold the two apartment buildings near the intersection of Sixth and King streets, but he wants to share what he's learned with the La Crosse community.

Bruring will unveil refurbished signs today in a dedication ceremony. The repaired placards -- removed years ago after falling into disrepair -- tell a tale almost as old as the city itself.

"People will find out that the history is there," Bruring said.

Bruring made some of the most recent updates to the two buildings, installing insulation, new windows, new kitchens, new bathrooms and plumbing and electric wiring to meet modern standards.

He and his wife bought the property in the early 1980s.

"We began to do some investing in land and in property such as this," Bruring said.

Bruring later sold the site, but not before unearthing its history. Literally.

A stone's throw from downtown, 600 King St. and the neighboring building contain 18 residential units varying in size from efficiency to three-bedroom. Between them is a parking lot, but what passersby won't see is what former University of Wisconsin-La Crosse archeologist James Theler calls a "a time capsule of old La Crosse."

Hidden under the lot is the foundation of a 19th century home. The home belonged to John J. Cole, an Albany, N.Y., native who moved to western Wisconsin in 1859 to practice law.

Theler was director the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center when Bruring's shovel first struck limestone in 1985. Center archaeologists dug around the site after Bruring's discovery and uncovered artifacts such as the bones of a passenger pigeon, an extinct species.

"We had a huge roost in western Wisconsin, and market hunters would go out and pickle them in brine and bring them in fresh to sell," Theler said.

Cole's home was ripped off its foundations and moved in 1903, but the oldest structure on the site is still standing. A wing of 616-620 King St. dates back to 1858, though the interior has been remodeled, showing few signs of the structure's age, said Dan Franzini, who co-owns the King Street apartments with his sister and father.

"They've all been redone," Franzini said.

Robert Looney, an early settler, bought the site for $500 and transformed an empty lot into a "fashionable two-story brick veneer structure with hand-tooled limestone window sills as well as hand-tooled rectangular limestone foundation blocks," according to Bruring's sign.

The corner building, 600 King St., was constructed in 1904 by an eye doctor named Horace J. McDonald -- the same man who removed the Cole house.

Bruring wants the signs to remind people about La Crosse's history, both above ground and below.

Because of Bruring's concern for local history and because of the care that was taken in the 1985 dig, archaeologists could revisit the site any time in the future to further explore the foundations of the old Cole house, Theler said.

The King Street apartment buildings are a window back to a time when La Crosse was still a "roaring riverfront" city, with steamboats lining the nearby Mississippi River, Theler said.

"La Crosse was a bustling place," Theler said. "It was filled with saloons and characters."

Many of the city's oldest buildings have been razed, damaged beyond repair and removed completely, Theler said.

Upkeep of La Crosse's old buildings falls to property owners like Franzini.

"Every sort of generation, I'll say, has the responsibility to care for them during their life," Franzini said. "If everybody does that these buildings should be around for another 100 years."


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Source: La Crosse Tribune (WI)

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