My favorite quip from Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes” seems appropriate for this image that blends now with the late 1940’s.
After the second world war in early 1947, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks repainted their Beaux Arts style Tacoma Lodge building and Spanish Steps. They also completely remodeled the upper Broadway level to add a dark, moody, and no doubt smoky bar in the Northwest corner adding a drop ceiling in the main dining room to conceal some very nicely detailed plaster and ornamentation. The late 40’s were a boom time for membership in the fraternal organization and the unchangeable features of the 1916 building were beginning to get in the way of mid century modern mind sets.
“Big John” Anderson, a building contractor, was elected Exalted Ruler of the Tacoma lodge in April 1949 and he would go on to serve as Tacoma’s Mayor for most of the 1950’s ( Ist term 1950-54, 2nd term 1956-58). He found both the Elks lodge and City Hall architecturally out of date and used his considerable influence to support the construction of the a sleek new County City Building (and the demolition of the Romanesque Pierce County Courthouse) on Tacoma Avenue. It took the Elks a bit longer to purchase 20
acres between Cedar and Union at 19th Street and complete a new 76,000 square foot building that included a 1000 seat theater, sprawling dining room and cocktail bar and athletic facilities. When the new Elks Building, surrounded by mall like parking lots, was dedicated in 1965, the downtown temple was stripped of its pinset entablature, cast bronze door ecsutchutons and interior jewelry and even the whistling bull elk from the main lodge room on the top floor. Combined with the opening of the Tacoma Mall in 1962-3, the moving of Municipal Government and the city’s largest social club from the head of Pacific Avenue was a staggering blow to Tacoma’s urban design and self image. The days when Pacific Avenue was Tacoma’s Grand Boulevard carrying people from Union Station on a line toward a harbor overlook framed by City Hall, the Northern Pacific Railway Building and the Elks/Spanish Steps ensemble were over. The mind and heart of Tacoma were scattered and soon the true north compass needle of Pacific Avenue would begin to erode. Whole blocks of five and six story Commercial Buildings were demolished with government funds and brutal cavernous garages took their place. Tacoma’s history was in the cross hairs of hair brained schemes about how every city should look the same.
Unlike many other American cities that were infected with Urban Renewal programs however, Tacoma stopped short of biting into its most architecturally important buildings and structures. Remarkably, the group of landmarks around Old City Hall, including the Elks Lodge, Spanish Steps, Northern Pacific Railroad Headquarters Building, and the surrounding commercial district were designated as Tacoma’s first protected historic district in 1978. Led by Architect Alan Liddle, Tacoma’s recognized historic preservation ethic was born in the civic debate over not erasing Tacoma’s proudest cluster of building from the late 19th and early 20th Century. The Elks Lodge was an integral part of the fight.
The story of the grand 1916 Lodge Building, designed by the flamboyant Ecole de Beaux Arts trained architect Edouard Frère Champney, gets very hazy after the Elks leave in 1965. That story is being collected and reused right now as the Elks Temple reopens as McMenamins Tacoma Elks. While Tacoma has demonstrated a special talent for saving historic places and reusing beautiful old buildings, the Elks Lodge restoration as a hotel & restaurant in the inimitable McMenamins style may be the most extraordinary yet.