Conversion of former Wyalusing Academy into Lawler School Lofts to begin in August

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An aerial view of the former St. Mary’s Academy/Wyalusing Academy shows the entire 14-acre property. The main building is being renovated into 40 apartments, the Lawler School Lofts. (Photo by Jack Knowles)

By Ted Pennekamp

 

The former Wyalusing Academy building has recently been officially purchased by Lawler School Lofts, LLC, a part of The Commonwealth Companies, which is a real estate development firm headquartered in Fond du Lac, Wis.

The 80,000-square-foot main building on the property, 601 S. Beaumont Road, will be developed into a 40-unit apartment building named Lawler School Lofts.

“Construction is slated to begin in August of 2017,” said Kevin McDonell, vice president of development with The Commonwealth Companies. “Construction is planned to be completed in August of 2018.”

McDonell said the apartments will be two and three-bedroom units, with the majority of the units renting in the range of $500 to just under $900.

“There will be an exercise room, business center, tenant storage, community room and an on-site property management office,” said McDonell, who noted that the general contractor for the project will be Commonwealth Construction Corporation.

The building will retain its historic look, yet will have modern amenities.

“Historical replica windows will be created, hardwood floors will be refinished and the preservation of historic woodwork will keep the historic integrity of the property, while providing beautiful apartments for the residents to enjoy,” said McDonell. “We are utilizing both federal and state historic tax credits, and without both of those resources, this project would not be feasible.” 

Commonwealth received $479,231 in tax credits in 2016. In 2015, McDonell had given a very rough estimate of the cost of the project as $8 million.

McDonell further stated that it is important that the citizen’s of Prairie du Chien talk to their political representatives to make sure they continue to fund the state historic tax credit program that is currently on the state budget’s chopping block. 

“It is communities like Prairie du Chien that have the most to lose because many of our larger communities in Wisconsin may have the ability to attract the necessary capital to complete a project like this, but it is not feasible for our smaller communities to attract the needed capital without the state historic tax credits to preserve the historic character of our more rural Wisconsin cities and towns,” he said.

The Commonwealth Companies do not plan to sell the property, said McDonell in noting that Commonwealth only has plans for developing the main building. He also said that Commonwealth is very pleased to be undertaking such a project in Prairie du Chien.

“When I first visited the property I was very surprised to find a building of this vintage in such great condition and in such a great location close to Prairie du Chien’s thriving historic downtown,” said McDonell. “We believe the Lawler School Lofts project will help to continue that momentum and keep the community moving in the right direction. This is a great opportunity for the city to continue to attract additional investments, while preserving what makes Prairie du Chien unique.”

River to Valley Initiatives of Prairie du Chien (RVI) sold the property to Lawler School Lofts, LLC, of The Commonwealth Companies and is pleased that the main building will now be developed, said RVI President Julie Henley.

“RVI has completed Phase I of the overall multi-million dollar Lawler Lofts Project by securing Commonwealth to develop the 40-unit apartment building and save the former St. Mary’s College/Wyalusing Academy historic building,” Henley said.

Phase 2 of the project will be planning for the possible re-development of the mechanical building and planning for the nine acres adjacent to the main building. The nine acres are positioned along Main Street and parallel to the Mississippi River. RVI owns the acreage around the main building and around the parking lots, explained Henley.

“We will be looking to develop this in a manner positive for community development, possibly selling some parcels or developing ourselves, to achieve the right mix,” she said. “RVI has expertise in working with tax credits, other programs and communities to make difficult projects possible. This helps preserve a sense of place, develop new and desirable homes in older neighborhoods and provides upgraded housing, attracting further investment and improved tax base.” 

In 2014, RVI, a non-profit corporation, was selected by the former property owner, Clinicare Corporation of West Allis, to develop the property to be a positive and sustainable entity. The directive was to preserve the historical integrity of the property and save it from demolition, while preserving the tax base. The 14-acre property was officially donated to RVI in July of 2015. In 2016, the Prairie du Chien City Council approved the rezoning of the property from R-1 (low density residential) to R-3 (high density residential).

Lawler School Lofts will be named after John Lawler, who, in the late 1800s, transferred railroad cars and passengers across the Mississippi River by ferry. In 1874, he created the pontoon railroad bridge that operated until 1961. He donated the land, once a part of the second Fort Crawford, to the Catholic nuns for a girls’ school in 1870. Lawler also contributed funds for the construction of St. Mary’s Academy, which educated young women for almost a century before it closed in 1968. It operated as Wyalusing Academy from 1969 until 2013 as a private school and residential facility dedicated to teaching students life, academic and job skills.

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