The Rich History of McMenamins Elks Temple

The wait is finally over: The 103-year-old building opens to the public next week after sitting vacant in downtown Tacoma for 33 years. The gorgeous new structure, which took 18 months and $34 million to renovate, might look shiny and new. The storied history of the site, however, is carefully preserved inside.

Photo courtesy McMenamins

What is an Elks Temple anyway?

In downtown Tacoma, a tall, white building crouches behind Old City Hall. Though larger — and almost as old — it’s set back a bit and can be easy to miss. 

Part of the reason for the building’s relative anonymity might be its 33-year vacancy. Now a finished McMenamins property that opens next week, the Elks Temple is anything but anonymous: It’s Tacoma’s latest and greatest, featuring hotel rooms, restaurants, bars, and a concert venue. 

But if you’re from Tacoma, you probably know that the building has a history just as rich as the future it will likely enjoy under the ownership of the McMenamin brothers. And that history is what really makes the experience inside come to life.  

When the seven-story building went up in 1916, it was an Elks Lodge (or Elks Temple), home to the fraternal organization by the same name. Elks Lodges got their start in 1868 in New York, when a band of Broadway thespians — who called themselves the Jolly Corks because of a post-performance game they invented in the bars — lost a friend to a disease that could have been prevented if he’d had access to more money. 

“The Jolly Corks figured they needed to create a more formal group that would be able to fundraise for people in a situation like that,” said Tim Hills, historian for McMenamins. “And that became the Elks Lodge.” 

In the years that followed, Elks Lodges became popular organizations that went up across the country. By the time Tacoma got its own Elks Lodge in 1890 — originally in a theater downtown — there were 173 others. 

“For a while there, the Elks Lodge in Tacoma had the highest membership of any lodge in the country,” said Hills, explaining why the building that went up between Commerce and Broadway in 1916 is so spectacular. “But by 1965, the building seemed outdated, and everyone was moving to the suburbs. Elks wanted a new, modern space closer to the community.”

A Community Event Space

Courtesy Tacoma Public Library

So, in the mid-’60s, the Elks vacated the downtown location in favor of a spot in Central Tacoma.

Shortly after the Elks moved out of it, the building was used to host a wide variety of events, from reunions to debutante balls. According to Hills, the new owner would rent it out to anyone who had the money to pay. 

“He really felt like he was doing a service to the community by making this space available for all these different kinds of events,” said Hills. 

The space, which had previously been available almost exclusively to white men, was suddenly open to anyone. In the early ’70s, a few annual balls for African American teenagers were held in the Elks Temple; several years later, the gay community in Tacoma — which previously had no space for meetings or celebrations — held its first community event there. 

When the owner passed in 1986, however, the events stopped. And despite the grand plans made for it in the decades that followed, it has stood vacant since.

The Graffiti Artists

Graffiti

Photo by Zoe Branch

A huge building with a long-term vacancy in an urban area is a near-perfect opportunity for graffiti artists. Over the decades, tags accumulated on both the outside and inside of the Elks Temple.

“You should have seen it before any of the renovation was done: It was these huge open spaces that were just magnificent in size,” said Hills. “And there was all this graffiti throughout it. It really was stunning and truly artistic.” 

McMenamins is dedicated to honoring the history of buildings and the communities that surround them. In this case, that also includes the dormant years at the Elks Lodge, when artists like Jeremy Gregory would sneak into the building under the veil of night and tag the walls with cans of neon paint. 

“When I was hired as the artist for this building, they didn’t know that I did graffiti here,” said Gregory, who grew up in Tacoma and tagged the building in the ’90s. “I pitched them the idea of doing something dedicated to all the graffiti dudes, and (they) liked the idea of paying homage to that history.” 

Room 201 in the hotel is the graffiti room, which was curated by Gregory and a couple of his artist friends that he brought on board for the project. The green room, where bands will hang out before performances, is dominated by a massive, haunting mural created by Gregory and his partner, Joseph Brooks, whose work also will be featured in the hidden hallway that leads to the secret bar. 

“Tacoma is my town, and I’ve been doing art in it for a while,” said Gregory. “I tagged this building when I was a little kid, and now I’m doing murals in it, and the guy who owns it thinks it’s awesome. It’s pretty surreal.” 

Diversifying a Whitewashed History

Courtesy Tacoma Public Library

Because the Elks Lodge was a fraternal organization in the early 20th century, much of the building’s history has been centered around white men. But McMenamins historians were able to pull back the curtain to reveal a diverse array of people and stories associated with the building. 

Some of this work is reflected in the 45 hotel rooms, each of which is named after a person or group of people that is, in some way, connected to the building or the land on which it sits (Room 612, for example, is named for the Puyallup People). 

Room 204 is named after Lea McMillan, who snuck into the Elks as a teen to play handball and later became the Lodge’s first member of color, in 1961. Dolly Crosta (Room 406) oversaw the waitstaff of the dining room in the ’50s. 

“We wanted to represent more diversity whenever possible,” said Hills. By bringing forward women and people of color who worked in and around the building throughout its history, the historians try to ensure that these people’s stories and experiences are not erased. 

“(Room 615) is named after Lum May, a Chinese merchant in Tacoma, who was one of the only Chinese people to provide testimony of what happened after the expulsion of Chinese from Tacoma in 1885,” said Hills. “That was long before the Elks Lodge was on site, but those people were marched right along Commerce Street, right on that land. That’s an important piece of Tacoma’s history. We felt it should be represented in a way that people can learn from it.”

A Look Ahead

Photo by: Jeff Hobson

When McMenamins entertainment director Jimi Biron showed us through the space in late January, just three months before the opening of the building to the public, he was most excited about the possibilities of the intimate concert venue on the second floor. 

The Spanish Ballroom, which has standing-room space for 700 — and another 50 in a raised VIP section — is partnering with already-established music venues in Tacoma, like Alma Mater, to try to build out the music market south of Seattle. 

“The goal is to bring nationally touring acts here, acts that play the Crystal Ballroom and the Showbox,” said Biron. “Tacoma deserves a vibrant music scene, and 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.”  

The completion of the Elks Temple is a big cause for celebration for McMenamins, too. They first bought the building in 2007, after which plans were delayed due to the recession. Ten years after that purchase, construction was finally able to begin in earnest. 

“It’s amazing to see it finally coming together,” said Brian McMenamin two months before opening. “It’s definitely been a long time coming.” 

For Tacoma, the opening of the Elks Temple means no more anticipation and no more construction; now, there’s just one more place to look to as a Grit City point of pride.

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