An Early Tour of McMenamins

Behind the construction scene at Tacoma’s McMenamins Elks Temple.

In late April, the McMenamins Elks Temple will be open for business, buzzing with hotel guests, people out for a bite and a drink, and curious locals exploring the authentically restored 103-year-old building.

As of late January, the seven-story building still reverberates with the sound of heavy objects clattering to the floor and power tools sawing away down the hallways. Still, the building has made remarkable progress since construction started just under a year ago, with many of the vintage furnishings and custom art pieces already installed.

Underneath the dust of construction, the magic of what the building will soon shine through.

Jimi Biron, entertainment director for all McMenamins properties, recently showed us through the grandiose building, talking excitedly over the noise. We started at the Broadway entrance, where the front desk of the hotel will sit in front of the main pub. From the entrance, which inhabits the building’s fourth floor, we climbed a nearby staircase to floor seven — the top — to overlook one of the venue’s two ballrooms.

McMenamins Elk Temple“Those are skylights,” Biron said, pointing up to the small, bright circles dotted around the antique light fixtures hanging from the ballroom’s ceiling. Natural light, the high ceilings, and the hanging plants that will sit on the window ledges of hotel rooms on floor seven and spill down into the ballroom will make for a modern, airy space. From those windows at the top, guests can look out into the huge room in one direction and out onto the Sound in another.

We worked our way back down, past the sixth-floor ballroom and the tiny, unassuming fifth floor (which is a large stairwell of sorts).

Back on the fourth floor, Biron pointed out an example of the attention to detail that makes McMenamins properties unique. On this floor, the original molding that lines the high ceilings — much of which had been destroyed — has been painstakingly re-created.

“Instead of striking it all and putting up something new, (we) had to replicate every different type of molding in here,” Biron said. “We created molds in a cast based on pieces that were still intact, and then replicated them. Every single bit of molding that was destroyed, we’ve replaced.”

McMenamins Elk TempleAccording to Biron, Mike McMenamin, the brother overseeing the majority of the restoration of the Elks Temple, sees the value in going through that kind of process to maintain a building’s original charm. And he always figures out how to get it done.

“He’s an artist and creative cerebral type at heart,” Biron said. “Other people look at things and say, ‘That can’t be done.’ He looks at them and says, ‘Oh yes it can.’ Next thing you know, it’s done.”

Down another floor comes the game room — now a must-have in any McMenamins property — that will be complete with shuffleboard, pool, pinball, TVs, and a window that looks over the second-floor ballroom, which is also the concert venue.

This space, which will seat 700 in the main area and 50 more in a special VIP section, is what Biron is really excited about.

“The goal is to bring nationally touring acts here, acts that play the Crystal Ballroom and the Showbox,” Biron said. “We’re doing everything we can to make this a place they want to come.”

The venue itself is intimate and already unique in the special care that has been put into its construction. Thanks to fibrous walls, a sand-filled stage, and a Bose ShowMatch state-of-the-art sound system, the room will be at its peak acoustic resonance. Outside of the concert space, though, sounds will be muted from inside the hotel’s 45 guest rooms.

“The process (of building this) was very technical and tricky,” Biron said.

At this point, I thought we might be nearing the end of our tour — but we had yet to visit the secret bar (if you know, you know), the two-tiered green room that will soon be hosting performers; a brewer; and, yes, two more bars, one of which is on the first floor and has been the pet project of Dan McMenamin, Mike’s oldest son.

“This is the Old Hangout,” Biron said of the room adorned with bamboo, its concept inspired by Dan’s lifelong interest in Tiki culture. A giant central bar dominates the center of the room, and on the far wall are a waterfall and foot-soaking pool. This room will be the first thing people will see when entering from the Commerce side of the building — where the line for concerts will form.

It’s hard to believe that it’s all packed into one building: hotel rooms, bars, restaurants, ballrooms, a brewery. Needless to say, its opening will offer downtown Tacoma an entirely new host of activities, all in one location.

Biron’s hope is that it will begin to build out the music market in Tacoma.

“Tacoma deserves a vibrant music scene,” he said. “We want to work with all the other venues in the area, like Alma Mater and The Swiss. We’re essentially trying to create an entirely new market. Tacoma isn’t really on (bands’) radars right now. The goal is to change that.”

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is a staff writer at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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