CRE v Wisconsin

The power of repurposing: Turning an old candy company building into a boutique hotel

The Charmant Hotel in downtown La Crosse.

The brick building has stood in La Crosse, Wisconsin, since 1898, when it first served as the headquarters of the Joseph B. Funke Candy Company. But the years had not been kind, and the iconic building was in danger of being demolished, with plans for an office property for the land on which it sat.

That was before Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group stepped in. Working with owner Weber Holdings, Aparium spearheaded the redevelopment of the Funke building into a boutique hotel, saving the building and providing another boost to downtown La Crosse.

The 67-room Charmant Hotel opened its doors in September. And it's just one example of a successful repositioning in the Midwest. Developers and architects today are increasingly transforming older buildings into new uses.

It's happening now in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where a shuttered Macy's department store will be turned into a mixed-use development complete with a rooftop hockey rink. And it's already happened in Evansville, Indiana, where a former Greyhound bus station has been renovated and turned into retail space, soon to be home to a new restaurant in the summer of 2016.

Will it happen in Chicago, too? Maybe. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner would like to sell the James R. Thompson Center, home to several government employees. If that sale goes through, the property might need to be repositioned into something quite different.

The Charmant Hotel provides yet another example of how developers can bring new life back into once-glorious buildings that are now fading.

Vince Micha, project architect with The Kubala Washatko Architects in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, played a key role in the project that turned the former candy company building into a boutique hotel. Micha's company was the project architect, and Micha was the lead on the Charmant plans.

Micha returned to the hotel shortly after it opened, and had lunch in its on-site restaurant. He was surprised by what he saw.

"I sat in the restaurant and had lunch," Micha said. "It was packed on a Tuesday. That was so good to see. The hotel has been sold out numerous times in its early operations. That is exciting and encouraging to see."

Of course, the slow season is on the way. La Crosse can get awfully frigid in January and February. But Micha has hope that the Charmant will remain busy even as temperatures here drop.

"What's surprising is that they already have early bookings going on through the depths of winter," Micha said. "People are beginning to rediscover the amazing natural beauty in the La Crosse area. The views from the hotel to the bluffs across the Mississippi River are amazing. The skiing in the area is fantastic. This is a great place to visit."

A hotel with character

The new hotel definitely benefits from its location. It sits along the Mississippi River and across from La Crosse's Riverside Park. The hotel includes 51,533 square feet of occupied floor space with 67 rooms spread across six levels. This includes a rooftop garden on a 1,838-square-foot deck area on the hotel's sixth level.

The hotel features a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, sweets bar and rooftop lounge.

"There was a very real threat that this building would be knocked down to make way for a new office building," Micha said. "There's nothing wrong with an office building, of course. But La Crosse would have lost a piece of its history."

The very site of the hotel has historic significance. Micha said that the first white settler to La Crosse dragged some logs across the frozen Mississippi in the winter of 1848 and began building a fur trading post on the site. This makes the land on which the Charmant sits the first trading post settlement in the region.

Transforming a structure that was built in 1898 was no easy task. And the work that construction crews took on wasn’t simple. The general contractor on the project, C.D. Smith Construction, had to oversee the removal of the building’s existing roof and the addition of a fifth level. This meant that the building had to be brought up to code for vertical and lateral load requirements.

Steve Roloff, structural engineer with R.A. Smith National – which provided structural engineering and landscape services The Kubala Washatko Arhitects – said that he and the rest of R.A. Smith’s staff had to work without the benefit of drawings. There weren’t any available of the old structure.

“It’s easy to design a new building with all-new materials,” Roloff said. “It’s a little more difficult to take a building that is 100 years old with no documents supporting it and figure out what to do with it. There weren’t any drawings we could refer to. Everything we based the structural system on was based on visual observation and physical measurements.”

charmont hotel 2 for repurposing story

This meant that the engineering crew had to rely largely on partial demolition testing. They had to cut pieces of steel to determine the thickness of columns and what grade of steel was used in the building’s original construction.

The building’s rooftop garden is another highlight of the new hotel. It was designed as a gathering place for guests, not a passive garden that no one would see.

Tom Mortensen, registered landscape architect with R.A. Smith National, said that creating an aesthetically pleasing rooftop garden can be a challenge.

“Rooftops are brutal environments,” he said. “There’s heat in the summer. Wind all year long. They can be brutally cold in the winter. You really have to study what will work up there and give people an aesthetic that won’t look like a bad hair day most of the year.”

Mortenson could only choose plants that would thrive in soil that was just six inches deep. He also supervised the installation of a drip-irrigation, a system that would thwart the often high winds that would blow away water without such a system.

“The rooftop gardens were not an afterthought,” Mortenson said. “We wanted to create a place for people, not just a green roof for stormwater management. It is a rooftop space for people to enjoy. The aesthetic and function had to work together.”

The rooftop gardens now include an outdoor seating area and, of course, some wonderful views across the Mississippi River.

Micha said that the entire team that worked on the Charmant should be proud. They’ve created a new gathering place in town, one that will provide a boost to the local economy while saving a building that is more than a century old.

“One of the biggest concerns the owner had was that this hotel needed to be accessible,” Micha said. “It needed to be welcoming and not pretentious. We wanted the locals to feel that this was a place for them, too, not just for travelers. I think we’ve done that. The building is a focal point from the park. When you’re in the park and looking back toward downtown, that building becomes your focal point. It’s a visual hub. It’s in a perfect location.”