A house with history
Alums’ home has close ties to UWL founder, Thomas Morris
photo of the Pham home
Posted 11:36 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021
Tan Pham and Susan Niedzwiecki-Pham live inside a piece of UW-La Crosse history.
And for about $150 a night, you can, too.
Tan, ’87, and Susan, ’88 & ’11, are longtime owners of a stately, yellow Victorian on the 1300 block of Main Street in La Crosse — the former residence of Thomas Morris, who is often credited with founding UWL.
“When we got married and started looking for a house, this house pretty much checked everything we wanted,” Tan explains. “Then we found out it was Thomas Morris’ old house, and that was definitely a big plus for us.”
Susan agrees. “We were thrilled when we discovered the history behind it,” she says. “We didn’t fully know who he was or what that meant when we bought the house, but it’s been fun to dig into it some more. It’s like putting a puzzle together.”
Sharing their home
The couple purchased the house in 1995, and for many years rented out a one-bedroom apartment on the home’s second floor.
A few years ago, they decided to renovate the space and reopen it as a short-term vacation rental. Two years in, it has almost a five-star rating on airbnb.com.
“We get people from the Twin Cities, Madison, Chicago — just people looking to get away,” Tan notes. “They really seem to enjoy it here.”
The couple is one of just several families to own the 125-year-old home.
Morris lived there in the 1910s and 20s, shortly after he helped establish the La Crosse State Normal School, as it was called.
We get people from the Twin Cities, Madison, Chicago — just people looking to get away,” Tan notes. “They really seem to enjoy it here.
Morris the master
Local leaders twice tried to build a normal school (sometimes referred to as a teacher’s college) in La Crosse — first in 1871 and again in 1893. But neither attempt gained the necessary steam, and public interest began to dwindle.
This left Morris to do most of the heavy lifting.
After his election to the State Senate in 1904 (he would go on to serve as Wisconsin’s 22nd lieutenant governor), Morris rejected membership on preferred committees to serve on the education and finance committees. A year later, he renewed the campaign to bring a normal school to La Crosse, sponsoring a bill that was ultimately approved.
Old Main, now known as Graff Main Hall, opened in 1909. An article on the building’s dedication stated that Morris did “masterful work” in making the project a reality. The significance of the project, the article continued, “will not be fully appreciated until we come to view it in the light of history.”
Morris Hall, UWL’s education building and former Campus School, now bears his name.
A tasty trip
In a way, Tan and Susan are educators in their own right.
The couple runs a business called Cuisine Adventure Tours, which offers personalized food tours across Tan’s native Vietnam and other countries.
It was a natural fit, Tan says, given his family’s passion for food, travel and exploring various cultures.
“We used to throw a dart at a map, and then off we’d go without any kind of planning,” he says. “Then we started thinking: When we retire, what can we do to keep busy? It was great to have these experiences as a family, and now we can share that passion with others.”