Centennial Garden and the South Side Neighborhood Center

Posted by Scott on May 7, 2019

(written by Scott Brouwer, Archives staff)

In the past 50 years, historic preservation has become a key piece of what makes La Crosse unique.  Three residential neighborhoods have been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.  The downtown core has also been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic Commercial District with nearly 90% of the buildings in a five block area considered to be contributing to the historic architectural character of the district.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the City of La Crosse a Great American Main Street Award in 2002 for the city’s successful efforts in downtown revitalization through historic preservation. 

With the renewed attention on historic preservation of architecturally and culturally significant buildings in La Crosse after the Harborview Plaza project of the late 1960s-early 1970s and the First Bank Place (now U.S. Bank) office tower/Main Street parking ramp project in the early 1980s wiped out several blocks of historic downtown buildings, any plan for demolishing an old building now receives extra scrutiny.  This was the case for the Centennial Garden buildings, now the site of the South Side Neighborhood Center at 1300 S. 6th St. 


Google Map image of South Side Neighborhood Center, prior to Poage Park (empty field on right) renovations

Residents of Powell-Poage-Hamilton neighborhood, formerly known as Hood Field neighborhood, began organizing in the mid-1990s, establishing a Boys and Girls Club branch, creating a Neighborhood Planning Committee, and addressing the need for a Neighborhood Community Center.  In early 1999, plans for a possible site for the proposed Neighborhood Community Center coalesced on the SW corner of Hood and 6th Streets (pictured above), with the idea that 3 blighted buildings would be either partially restored or torn down completely to clear the way for a new building.  The buildings had most recently been used as a laundromat and Betty’s Sports Bar.  The city bought the property. 



Exterior and interior of dance hall (1310-1312 S. 6th St.), ca. 1999

Two of the buildings were originally constructed in 1876 as the Centennial Summer Beer Garden, Saloon, and Bowling Alley.  Built to honor the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the site later included a dance hall built by the C. & J. Michel Brewing Company in 1898.  This added portion of the building was later moved to the south end of the block at 6th and Farnam. 


1906 Sanborn fire insurance map depicting original location of dance hall


1944 Sanborn first insurance map depicting location of the dance hall after being moved


Some residents of the neighborhood sought historic designation for the buildings by the La Crosse Historic Preservation Commission in order to force the hand of the city to restore rather than demolish, while others saw the collection of buildings as an eyesore beyond saving.  What follows is a summary timeline of events from 1999:


  • Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) votes unanimously to put them on the historic preservation list, despite the owner (City of La Crosse) not desiring the designation. 


  • La Crosse Community Development Committee votes to demolish the buildings in order to build new based on neighborhood survey results showing majority wants to build new
  • Petitions introduced to save the buildings


  • Despite citizen-led petitions to save the buildings, La Crosse Common Council’s Committee of the Whole votes to demolish the buildings


  • HPC votes unanimously to deny approving a permit for the city to demolish the buildings, based on their earlier historic designation decision


  • La Crosse Common Council’s Judiciary and Administration Committee votes unanimously to overturn the HPC demolition permit denial
  • The city formally asks for an appeal on the HPC decision
  • Residents who want to save the buildings ask the La Crosse Community Development Committee for a year to fundraise the money and labor needed to renovate it
  • La Crosse Common Council grants the city’s appeal of the HPC decision on a 12-6 vote, clearing the way for demolition
  • Mayor John Medinger vetoes the Council’s demolition decision, despite the original vote already having the 2/3 majority needed to overturn his veto


  • La Crosse Common Council overturns the mayoral veto on a 12-6 vote

Another wrinkle in the story was the potential of there being Native American burial sites under the buildings.  During the months of appeals noted above, the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, both direct descendants of the Oneota who inhabited the area, entered the discussion with these concerns.  While renovation would likely also disturb the remains believed to be on the site, the Ho-Chunk and Iowa both formally supported renovation of the buildings rather than demolition.  However, with the path cleared for demolition already, a memorandum of agreement was signed in July of 2000 by representatives of the Ho-Chunk and Iowa Tribes, as well as the State Historical Society, which described what measures would be taken if the city disturbs archaeological resources or human remains found during the project.

Trib_Oct_11_2000_pD1.jpgLa Crosse Tribune 11 October 2000


Demolition began in October of 2000, with archaeological surveys done on the site turning up no signs of human remains.  With that hurdle cleared, the city moved quickly on building the proposed community center, and the South Side Neighborhood Center opened in February of 2002.  It currently serves the Powell-Poage-Hamilton Neighborhood as a meeting facility, recreational facility, gathering place, and polling site. 


La Crosse Tribune 17 February 2002


Photo taken by Scott Brouwer, May 2019



An historical marker on the site reads as follows: “The Centennial Summer Beer Garden, Saloon, Bowling Alley and Dance Hall, established here by the German immigrant Peter Lehnen, served the surrounding German and Bohemian neighborhood from 1876 until the Prohibition era.  The Centennial Garden site now serves the south side neighborhood center." Photo taken by Scott Brouwer, May 2019


While this story is a quick summary of the events of 1999-2002 surrounding this site, many neighborhood residents and city officials spent countless hours arguing both sides of this issue.  I would encourage anyone interested in learning more to visit the Archives.