Mike McMenamin has never seen a ghost. But the historic buildings he invests in with his brother Brian McMenamin are coated in dusty memories and hidden secrets. It’s as if they’ve lived a past life.
For 30 years the McMenamin brothers have taken old community buildings and made them new again. They’re currently working on reviving the old Elks Lodge in downtown Tacoma. It was built in 1915 and served as the center of the Tacoma Elks fraternal order until 1967. Since then, it has sat vacant, waiting for a brighter future.
“That’s the beauty of a place like this, it has all that soul with it already,” said Mike. “The history is so powerful.”
McMenamins is spending $32 million on the remodeling project that they hope to have finished by summer 2017. The space will include 46 hotel rooms with private baths, some of which will be located in the upper ballroom (the top floor) with views of Old City Hall and downtown Tacoma. The rooms will be like little cabins so that the outer walls of the ballroom can remain exposed. There will also be a brewery and three restaurants. One restaurant will be perched on the fourth floor overlooking the Thea Foss Waterway. The Spanish steps just outside Elks Lodge will have an outdoor café and patio.
Mike’s favorite room is the lower ballroom where columns rise to the ceiling and jester faces hang from the walls. In the past the room hosted fancy events where women wore gowns and pearl necklaces. Now paint is peeling from the walls and onto the dirty hardwood floors. But the character and history of the space still shines through.
“You can’t walk in here and not enjoy it,” said Mike.
The lodge’s later years have not been as fancy. It played host to squatters. Its windows pierced with holes. It used to be full of trash. The walls no longer hold framed photos but rather colorful graffiti. And while the spray-painted messages will be covered up during the renovation, the brothers plan to preserve its presence by having McMenamins artists recreate some of it.
“It’s part of the history. So is the Elks’ banquets or the Elks’ celebrations. So is the graffiti, so is the music that got played here,” said Mike.
Also part of the history are the hidden bottles of booze they’ve found in the walls or old artifacts left from previous generations. According to Brian, nothing they’ve found has been particularly bizarre. The building biggest problem is water damage.
“When it rains it pours in here,” he said.
One day after a rainstorm they walked into a waterfall cascading down the staircase. Some of the original details of the building, such has its moldings, have suffered so much damage that the team is working on recreating sections of it.
Damages have added up to a hefty price for the McMenamin brothers. They were hoping to spend far less than what has become a $32 million budget, $10 million of which is being raised by investors – many who are local. They have about $4 million left to raise. They bought the property in 2009 for $1.2 million.
The city of Tacoma also has played an important role in supporting the revival of the Elks Lodge.
“They’ve been trying to find someone as nutty enough to take it on,” said Mike. For years the brothers had been looking for a Tacoma property. According to them, Tacoma is a city on the rise with an influx of more than $860 million in recent planned development in the downtown area in the last several years. In December 2015, McMenamins was in talks with the city about revitalizing Old City Hall as well as the Elks Lodge. But for now, the lodge has their full attention.
The McMenamin brother’s have a knack for breathing new life into old spaces. Sometimes they act like young boys building a fort around the bones of a deteriorating structure. Down a thin hallway, Mike stood in a small dark room under cobwebs.
“This will be a secret bar under the sidewalk,” he said. It will be disguised so it’s hard for people to find. But once they do they can always return. Poking his head out of the room’s open door, paint peeling from all its corners he asked, “Doesn’t this space feel cool right now?”