Mother and daughter bring high-end business to downtown La Crosse
By: Heather Laing
Just a few blocks down from Riverside Park—where Carla Callies used to be spotted walking her pet rabbit—the golden fall sun streams into the windows of the old Pamperin Cigar Factory in Historic Downtown La Crosse, Wis. Though its cigar-making days are over, remnants of the factory can still be found in the building. Serving as Callies’ new home, she continues to dine at one of the old wooden tables where women used to sit and roll cigars. And alongside it, an 8-and-a-half-foot wooden Popeye figure, fully equipped with a mechanical arm, has retired his amusement park days for the new role of “greeter” in Callies’ home. Hung tactfully at the top of the staircase, he seems to give a knowing wink, as if to tell all who enter that they are about to feast their eyes on something one-of-a-kind.
“When people walk into that front door, they are coming into my world,” says Callies, taking proud ownership of the time and effort that went into the building’s renovation.
And Callies’ world is nothing shy of unique. She is a collector and creator of all things visual. Ranging from her newly acquired shopping cart to her elaborate candy display to her love of body parts adorning the wall, Callies has forged a new style of her own. Scavenging for trinkets the average person may find little use for, she has put her interior design and visual merchandising skills to use to compile the strangest of objects in her 3000-square-foot apartment.
Callies first purchased the vacant factory building in August 2001. She was about to encounter a new test of her skills, facing both the pretty and the ugly sides of redesign. And little did she know, these unforeseen challenges would help shape her into a strong mentor, mother and business owner.
“There was a ‘For Rent’ sign, and I said wouldn’t that just be the cutest little shop…and the next thing I knew, it was my building, and I hadn’t really thought about it,” Callies says matter-of-factly, without the slightest hint of regret in her voice.
Though all her friends thought she was crazy for leaving her beautiful home in the bluffs to move to a dilapidated building in the city, she was ready for a new adventure and change.
Just a few years prior, Callies had opened Ambiance—an antique shop in an old gas station downtown—and she was eager to revamp her business. In just eight short weeks, she managed to turn the first floor of the building into a new space for her shop and the second floor into her cozy home—but not without a few bumps along the way.
Contractors had to cut a hole in the roof to remove the cast iron elevator from the center of the building. Wiring, plumbing and heating had to be installed, and the foundation repairs on the front wall alone cost $50,000. But every chore was worth it to Callies.