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Preserving History

Posted 10:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 5, 2022

Laura Godden, Murphy Library Special Collections/Area Research Center Historian

Murphy Library Special Collections Historian wins heritage award

By Laura Godden (she/her/hers)

Laura Godden, Murphy Library Special Collections/Area Research Center Historian, recently received the Heritage Award from the Preservation Alliance of La Crosse (PAL) and presented at the group’s 43rd annual banquet in September. PAL encourages the preservation of historically significant places through education, recognition, protection and reuse. It was founded in 1976 in direct response to the demolition of some of the area's most architecturally important structures, in particular La Crosse's 1890 federal post office building. It started giving the prestigious Heritage Award in 1978 to showcase exceptional efforts by individuals or organizations. Anyone can submit a nomination via PAL’s website.   

Regarding this year’s honor, PAL Board member Dave Riel states, “When the average person hears the term historic preservation, they might think about repairing an old building [...] or people protesting a demolition, placing themselves in front of a bulldozer to save a historic building. But an equally important aspect of preservation is the academic side, the researchers gathering and preserving historic documents, telling the stories of these buildings, giving them historic context and conveying their importance.” 

Godden received the award for her archival accomplishments in Murphy Library, where she assists academics studying buildings and architecture, residents and genealogists seeking stories of particular places, property owners and architects restoring structures, and historic designation nominators.  

PAL Heritage Award certificate awarded to Laura Godden

The honor also recognized Godden’s contributions to the City of La Crosse’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC). La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat appointed her to the HPC in 2019 largely because of her wide-ranging local history and primary source knowledge honed through her work in the library’s archives. Her cultural-heritage skills were especially valuable in 2021 when the commission launched a new educational awareness campaign about La Crosse’s most endangered historic places. (The fall 2021 Fine Print issue showcases this endeavor in more detail).  

Riel recounts, “Godden proposed doing research on each property, then writing a series of newspaper articles for the La Crosse Tribune about them.” Riel continues, “It was immediately obvious these articles had a significant impact on public discourse. Many people were shocked to learn the importance of buildings like the Rublee-Washburn House, asking if it was for sale, expressing an interest in restoring it. Godden’s articles had a demonstrable, positive impact, both on promoting historic preservation and increasing the real likelihood these buildings would be saved.” Additionally, Godden was interviewed about the project by local and even national media outlets.  

Godden's efforts caught the attention of PAL board members, who recognized that they furthered some of their organization's goals, as the advocacy of PAL has also had a visible impact on the community. For example, some of its earliest work helped save the city's old pump house from the wrecking ball, thus allowing its repurposing into a regional arts center that still exists today. 

Most Heritage Award winners are connected to a specific property’s restoration, making Godden one of only a few to receive it for educational efforts alone. This distinguished group also includes fellow UW-La Crosse professor Les Crocker (1983), student and architectural historian Joan Rausch (1989), and steamboat photo sleuth Ralph DuPae (1995). Visit the PAL website for the full list of recipients, which includes The Freighthouse Restaurant, Mons Anderson House (410 Cass St.), Buzzard Billy’s, Charmant Hotel, St. Elias Church, The Board Store and more. 

The PAL award ceremony highlighted the publicity the endangered properties project received.

Godden is incredibly grateful to PAL, as cultural heritage work often goes unacknowledged. In the media, for example, it is often reported that informational sources were found "hidden" in the archives as if they were lost or previously inaccessible. In reality, archivists devote much time to acquiring, organizing and describing such items, ensuring they are discoverable in library catalogs, finding aids, digital libraries and other similar tools.  

This year's PAL award underscores that this behind-the-scenes labor makes many preservation projects, ranging in size from average homeowners to massive commercial undertakings, possible. In a similar vein, Godden points out that her work would not be as successful without the mentorship and efforts of her predecessors, emeriti professors Paul Beck, Ed Hill, and Les Crocker. It means a lot to Godden to receive such a prestigious award from PAL, a group she very highly respects and admires, and this honor has only further motivated her to keep contributing to heritage preservation.