Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Why I love Decorah, Part I November 26, 2018

Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in downtown Decorah draws many visitors interested in learning about their heritage.

 

TWICE I’VE VISITED DECORAH in northeastern Iowa. It’s one of those towns that feels comfortable, inviting, an ideal destination for someone who prefers rural to urban.

 

Decorah is named after Ho-Chunk Chief Waukon Decorah. I spotted this portrait by noted artist Charles Philip Hexom on a stairway wall at the public library.

 

What makes Decorah so appealing to me?

 

 

 

 

The architecture.

 

“Doe and Fawn” sculptures by Victoria Reed stand in a public plaza near a downtown co-op.

 

Love this mural of “Irene” painted by Valerie Miller of Steel Cow.

 

A stone sculpture on the Nelson & Co. building.

 

The art.

One of my favorite spots in Decorah, the waterfall at Dunning’s Spring Park, site of a former grist mill and gifted to the city in 1946.

 

The natural beauty.

 

Valdres House, one of many authentic Norwegian rooted buildings at Vesterheim. This is a typical Norwegian landowner’s house, dismantled and shipped from Norway to Decorad in the mid 1970s.

 

The downtown shops and eateries. The city’s appreciation of its strong Norwegian heritage, even if I’m of German heritage.

And the people. While at Pulpit Rock Brewing, Randy and I shared a picnic table with a young couple and their daughter (and her grandpa). They were quick to answer our questions about places to eat, sleep and explore.

Upon their recommendation, we stayed at a new hotel on the edge of town and met a trio of college friends together for their annual girlfriends’ reunion. They welcomed us into their circle at a gas-fired campfire on a perfect early autumn evening. When did hotels start adding this amenity? I loved it. There’s something about fire…

 

The Upper Iowa River runs through the 34-acre Decorah Community Prairie and Butterfly Garden. This view is from a scenic overlook in Phelps Park.

 

And water. Water is part of the draw for me to this river town.

 

Magnificent stone work at Phelps Park, which also includes a fountain (not on at the time of my visit) crafted from stone.

 

Upon the recommendation of the family at the brewery, we sought out Phelps Park. There we found extensive stonework done by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I often wonder when I see such work, “How did they build this without modern equipment?”

Outside an historic downtown building with a corner tower, I chatted it up with an elderly man on a bench. He drives in from the farm every morning to meet friends for coffee and to sit and people-watch. He lives out by the supper club, he said, which meant nothing to me. But I pretended like it did. He’ll never see me again.

That’s the thing about travel. If you engage with the locals, you’ll learn a thing or ten about the place you’re visiting. Stuff you won’t find on a website, stuff best learned in conversation.

TELL ME: Do you chat it up with locals when you’re traveling? I’d like to hear your stories.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Decorah. Have you ever visited Decorah and, if so, what appeals to you there?

NOTE: I took these photos during a mid-September visit to Decorah. The landscape obviously looks much different today. So if you’re not inclined to visit this Iowa city now, think ahead to next spring or summer.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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First impressions of downtown Madison, Wisconsin June 11, 2018

 

 

AS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T particularly like big cities, and I realize that term is relative, I like Madison. That surprised me.

 

The modernistic entrance to the U.S. Federal Courthouse.

 

The Wisconsin Historical Society.

 

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

 

But on my recent first visit to Wisconsin’s capital city of 252,000-plus, I discovered a downtown that mixes historic and contemporary to create an energetic, yet small town inviting, vibe. Granted, I only spent an hour downtown and popped into only one shop on a Sunday morning. But that was enough for me to grasp a sense of place, a place I want to explore further.

 

 

Looking toward the capitol.

 

 

This is a foot-friendly city with State Street, a pedestrian mall, stretching for blocks from the University of Wisconsin—Madison to the state capitol building. This is also a bike-friendly city. I noted, too, many restaurants with outdoor dining along tree-hugged streets. Madison visually impresses with its greenery seemingly everywhere.

 

 

With the exception of homeless people I observed alongside a building near the capitol, I never felt like I was in an overpowering-to-my-senses urban area.

 

 

 

 

I felt, instead, like I was in greater Boston, which has the same smallish within a large metro area feel. Pie-slice street corners and angled buildings remind me of Porter and Davis Squares on the East Coast. Just less busy with pedestrians actually respectful of motor vehicle traffic.

 

 

Likewise, the packed, porch-fronted old houses of the downtown Madison area neighborhoods remind me of the old neighborhoods around Tufts University (where my son attended college) in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I expect had UW-Madison been in session, I would have seen lots of college students in the heart of this city given the university’s downtown location.

 

 

 

 

I found plenty to focus my attention. Architecture and signage always draw my interest and Madison offers visual variety in both.

 

 

After an hour-long tour through downtown with family, I determined that I need to return, to step inside the buildings, the places, that define the center of this capital city.

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Madison, what would you suggest I see on my next visit? Please check back for two more posts from Madison, including one on Bucky Badger craziness.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III, outside the Paine: More from the gardens June 21, 2017

A lawn sweeps to the majestic front entry of The Paine.

A lawn sweeps to the majestic front entry of The Paine buffeted by the Evening Terrace. The public entry to the art center is to the left.

WHEN I TOUR an estate like The Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, my eyes lock on details. The heft of a door. The hue of a flower. The curve of a sculpture.

Massive doors define the entry.

Massive doors and architectural details define the entry.

The Paine presents many opportunities to embrace art. Natural and man-made. All connect to showcase an historic late 1920s mansion designed by Ithaca, New York architect Bryant Fleming. The English country house reflects three centuries of Tudor and Gothic styles all complemented by  beautiful gardens.

 

Details in architecture atop tne Kasota limestone walls.

Details in architecture and construction include the use of Kasota limestone.

Also noteworthy is the Minnesota connection to this Wisconsin site on the National Register of Historic Places. The home’s stonework is mostly Kasota limestone from southern Minnesota.

One of many garden "rooms."

One of many garden “rooms.”

 

A majestic native oak graces the front yard.

A majestic native oak graces the front yard.

 

Lucious planters frame a path to the patio.

Stately planters and lush plantings frame a path to the Morning Terrace.

The gardens, likewise, mimic perennials, trees and shrubs hardy to Minnesota. Given the climate similarities between the two states, this is logical. Annuals and bulbs are also incorporated into The Paine gardens.

Lilies bloomed during my July 2016 visit.

Lilies bloomed during my July 2016 visit.

Flowers in bloom during my mid-summer 2016 visit differ from those blooming earlier or later. The estate landscape is like an evolving art gallery. There’s a certain visual appeal in that, in observing nature’s art always changing.

BONUS PHOTOS:

The public entry to The Paine Art Center.

The public entry to The Paine Art Center.

 

The first sculpture I spotted, near the entry.

The first sculpture I spotted, near the entry.

 

My husband, Randy, plays a xylophone in a garden.

My husband, Randy, plays a xylophone in The Children’s Field Station.

 

One of many graceful sculptures.

One of many graceful sculptures.

FYI: For more information about The Paine Art Center and Gardens, click here. Then click here to read my first post from inside The Paine. Next, click here to read Part I and then Part II of my gardens series.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part V from La Crosse: A final look at downtown March 29, 2017

 

IN ONE FINAL PHOTO sweep through downtown La Crosse, I present a collage of images.

 

 

I am drawn to signs and architecture, to distinct characteristics which define a town’s personality.

 

 

 

 

La Crosse is a river town, storied in history. You can see that in the aged buildings which flank streets that bend, like the Mississippi River. History holds a place of honor within this downtown.

 

 

 

 

Yet, this Wisconsin city is not stodgy, existing only in the past. Rather, La Crosse is like a sometimes flamboyant relative claiming attention with loud colors and signs and messages. I doubt I’ve ever seen more vivid and unique signage in a small Midwestern city.

 

 

 

But that does not surprise given La Crosse’s considerable number of downtown drinking establishments. Wisconsinites love their booze. And this is a college town. Visit in the daytime or early evening and you can avoid that whole bar scene, although remnants of night life may linger the morning after with beer in a glass outside a bar door. (True sighting.)

 

 

 

 

La Crosse seems, too, part big city urban yet rooted in rural. Somehow the blend works in a downtown that draws all ages.

 

 

FYI: Please check back for one more post in this “From La Crosse” series as I take you to one of the city’s most notable natural landmarks.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part IV from La Crosse: Applauding this city’s entertaining visuals March 27, 2017

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DOWNTOWN LA CROSSE, WISCONSIN presents a visual delight that requires spotlight focus to view every detail.

 

 

 

 

Colorful signs compete for attention along storefronts that are themselves architectural attractions.

 

Stained glass art displayed in the front window at Vision of Light Stained Glass, 129 S. Fourth Street.

 

A vintage department store box showcased in a window display.

 

Shoppers enter Antique Center, which presents an inviting window display.

 

Creative window displays draw more interest.

 

 

From almost any place, you hold a ring-side seat to pedestrians and vehicles performing should I cross/should I stop theatrics.

 

Buzzard Billys serves fantastic Cajun-Creole food. Be forewarned that it’s a busy place.

 

This riverside town rates as a must-see destination for anyone who delights in entertainment. Actual entertainment and the kind of entertainment that comes from being a watcher, an observer, an appreciator of a city with a visual character all its own.

 

The Starlite Lounge, a 1950s style cocktail lounge, is located on the second floor of Buzzard Billys. It was closed during the time frame I visited La Crosse. But I saw the lounge on a previous visit and hope to photograph it next time I’m in town.

 

La Crosse performs well under the scrutiny of my camera lens, earning my applause for a place that draws my photographic and personal interest.

TELL ME: Have you visited La Crosse? If, yes, what do you like about the city? If not, would you visit and why?

FYI: Please check back as I continue my “From La Crosse” series.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I from La Crosse: The historic downtown through my camera lens March 22, 2017

Crossing the Mississippi River from La Crescent, Minnesota, into La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

WITH MY APPRECIATION of historic buildings, La Crosse, Wisconsin, has become a favorite occasional destination. This Mississippi River town bordering Minnesota is about a half-way meeting point between my Faribault home and my second daughter’s home in eastern Wisconsin. We recently met there for a Saturday afternoon of dining and exploring.

 

Nearing downtown La Crosse.

 

I love shopping in La Crosse. Mostly photoshopping. While the rest of the family focuses on getting from one shop to the next, I am constantly distracted by the endless photo opportunities. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up,” I repeat.

 

Entering the historic downtown.

 

Signage painted on buildings draws my eye.

 

Some communities restrict signage on historic buildings. But in downtown La Crosse, anything seems to go, creating a visually diverse landscape of signs that pop color and interest into the streetscape. It works, adding character to this downtown.

 

Then I stand and swing my camera lens upward to photograph architectural details, vintage lettering on buildings and the many colorful and creative signs that landmark downtown businesses.

 

Downtown La Crosse is one busy place. On-street parking is a challenge to secure. However, four parking ramps are situated in the downtown and offer free parking on weekends. Same goes for street parking. The downtown features lots of one-way streets.

 

Everywhere you look, there’s something to catch a photographer’s eye.

 

Bridesmaids head for an ice cream treat at The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor, a must-stop ice cream shop and more along historic Pearl Street. Love The Pearl’s homemade ice cream.

 

Or I keep my camera at street level, capturing streetscapes. This downtown pulses with people and traffic.

 

Outside Kroner True Value Hardware store.

 

The day after St. Patrick’s Day, I spotted this cup of green beer on a window ledge in a bar. I also saw a glass of beer outside a bar entrance. Downtown La Crosse is packed with bars, I believe the highest per capita of any U.S. city, according to numerous online sources. (Google it.)

 

The ultimate (in my opinion) “I’m from Wisconsin” t-shirt showcased in the window of The Cheddarhead Store on Pearl Street.

 

Occasionally I direct my lens down to at-my-feet details or toward window scenes.

 

This colorful signage welcomes downtown visitors to Historic Pearl Street West.

 

I photographed this barge on the Mississippi River which edges downtown La Crosse.

 

The dining options in La Crosse are many, including Big Boar Barbecue. No, I haven’t eaten there. Yet.

 

Downtown La Crosse truly rates as a photographer’s/visitor’s dream—if you love historic river towns with aged, detailed architecture; colorful signage; character; diverse dining and drinking options; and a variety of unique shops.

FYI: Please check back for more posts from La Crosse.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I: Discovering Albert Lea’s strongest asset, in my opinion October 27, 2015

EXITING INTERSTATE 35 in southeastern Minnesota into Albert Lea, I saw the usual hotels, fast food places, a Big Box retailer and gas stations that could have made this Anywhere, USA. Nothing special. Just another place to fill up with food or gas, turn around and continue onto a destination.

But Albert Lea was my destination on a recent day trip to explore this city of some 18,000.

I knew little of this community, only that it hosts the annual Big Island Rendezvous and Eddie Cochran Days and is home to a chemical dependency treatment center.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 89 interchange to furniture store

 

It’s strongest asset, as I was about to discover, lies in the heart of downtown. Albert Lea boasts a Commercial Historic District with some incredible architecture. You would never know that, though, driving into town from the first exit on the north. You would never know that by skimming the tourism website or reading the Experience Albert Lea brochure (which mentions the district but features no photos of old buildings).

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 57 tops of buildings

 

An informational kiosk in the downtown shares info about historic buildings.

A kiosk in the downtown shares info about historic buildings.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 56 furniture store

 

I discovered this treasure of historic buildings simply by driving into the downtown. One hundred and fifteen buildings comprise the Albert Lea Commercial Historic District, according to information I later found on the Minnesota Historical Society website. Wow.

Architectural details on the bank.

Architectural details on the former Albert Lea State Bank building.

This stunning old bank building, if all goes as hoped, will provide housing and serve as an art center.

The former bank building, one of the most impressive buildings downtown.

Sculpted lady above the bank building entry.

Sculpted lady above the bank building entry.

If you appreciate aged buildings that are architecturally stunning, then you must tour Albert Lea. Especially impressive is the massive former Albert Lea State Bank building anchoring a corner of South Broadway. Built in 1922 for $200,000, the structure features a marble facade and is decorated with cream hued terra cotta art. The City of Albert Lea invested about $2 million in its exterior restoration in 2007. Millions more, perhaps three times as much, are needed for additional interior (electrical, plumbing, heating/cooling, etc.) improvements.

Plans are to house the Art Center in the historic bank.

Plans are to house the Art Center in the historic bank.

The Art Center is currently in a building across the street from the bank.

The Art Center is currently in a building across the street from the bank.

A sign above the door labels the old bank as the future home of the Albert Lea Art Center. Online research also reveals that a Kansas developer plans to convert the upper floors into income-limited apartments.  However, that was contingent on securing housing tax credits, which the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency recently failed to award to the proposed project. Albert Lea officials and the developer must now decide whether to reapply for the tax credits (for the third time) or pursue other options.

A local whom I met downtown (prior to the MHFA decision) said I could probably buy the building for $10. Through November, the first floor of the old bank houses a Des Moines based West End Architectural Salvage pop-up shop, next open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. October 30 – November 1.

So much potential exists in Albert Lea's downtown given the volume of historic buildings.

So much potential exists in Albert Lea’s downtown given the volume of historic buildings.

Many empty storefronts occupy downtown Albert Lea. I don’t know why this surprises me. But it does. In recent years, I’ve visited all too many mid-sized Minnesota cities expecting to find bustling downtowns. Instead, I find many gaps between businesses.

A view of a side street in the downtown.

A view of a side street in the downtown.

In all fairness to Albert Lea, plenty of businesses still exist. It’s just that to a first-time visitor, multiple vacant storefronts present an impression of a struggling downtown. Correct assessment or not, visual impressions count.

Even though a sign flashed open in this antique shop, we could not figure out a way to gain entry to the business around newly-poured sidewalks.

Even though a sign flashed open in this antique shop, I could not figure out a way to gain entry to the business around newly-poured sidewalks on the day I was in town.

And, in all fairness to Albert Lea, I visited on a particularly blustery day, less than ideal conditions for fully exploring this community. The city lies between two lakes. But the weather was too blasted cold, grey and windy to even consider much time outdoors. As it was, I struggled to hold my camera steady against the wind for downtown photos. Road and sidewalk construction created additional obstacles.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 71 jeweler building

 

Will I return to Albert Lea? Perhaps.

Another former bank building in the downtown.

Another former bank building in the downtown.

I see the potential in this community for a destination downtown. That requires a strong mission/vision, money and a marketing plan that fully embraces and promotes Albert Lea’s Commercial Historic District as its greatest asset.

Tomorrow I'll take you inside the second building from the left in this image.

Tomorrow I’ll take you inside the third building from the corner in this image.

FYI: Return tomorrow to read the second part in this series from Albert Lea. I will take you inside a business that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling