The white stone letters atop the buildings, 3 feet high, read like a cartoon sound effect from the old “Batman” TV show: IOOF.
But those letters actually stand for bonds of brotherhood: the International Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal society that reached its zenith a century ago. The Odd Fellows built more than 20 lodges in Minneapolis and St. Paul, often-grand buildings that served as centers of social networking in an era when government did little to help people make their way.
Most of those Odd Fellows lodges are gone, demolished in the name of progress. Several exist in various states of dilapidation. But two of the old lodge buildings in Minneapolis survive and thrive today, anchoring busy commercial corners while providing a hub for community-building.
They’re stellar buildings, with their masonry construction, stringcourses, brick- and stonework detailing, and the remnants of once-lavish interiors. They’re the kind of solid, brick low-rise structures that formed the backbone of Main Streets all across America a century ago. And their design has stood the test of time, said John Smoley, a Minneapolis city planner and architectural historian.
“In urban planning now, two-, three- and four-story mixed-use buildings are all the rage,” he said. “That’s what we like to see.” The fraternal orders that built these structures had the pride and the financial means to keep their buildings in good shape for many years, Smoley said.
“Fraternal orders are also built on heritage and tradition,” he added, “so you didn’t see as much pressure to make over the buildings to meet the latest trends and provide the most up-to-date commercial appearance.”
These buildings speak of warmth, community and pride; they’re substantial without being overwhelming. Here’s a look at two Odd Fellows that fit right in today.
Now known as the 27 Event Center, the brick building at 2701 E. Lake St. was built in 1909 for Flour City Lodge 118. It once hosted dozens of lodge meetings and community events every week. Today it’s owned by Latina entertainment entrepreneur Maya Santamaria. Its upper floors house a restaurant, a club, and Spanish-language TV and radio stations; the ground floor is occupied by a check-cashing store, a medical office and Le Town Talk Diner.
Like many buildings constructed by fraternal orders, this one contains a ballroom — it’s on the third floor. That’s another charming aspect of the old fraternal buildings: You can’t spot the ballroom from the street. There are no visual cues on the exterior to indicate that inside is a room with 20-foot ceilings.
“One of the most important things a community needs when it’s establishing itself is a social center,” Santamaria said. “That was true for the Scandinavians, the Germans and the Italians, and it’s true for the Latinos. This building, throughout its history, has always been an immigrant ballroom.”
The Bulldog Northeast
This red-brick building dates from the 1880s, according to the Bulldog’s co-owner, Amy Rowland. For decades, the ground floor housed Eklund Clothing Co., a men’s and boys’ apparel store. By the 1970s, according to Rowland, it had been converted to a pornography emporium operated by the notorious Ferris Alexander. More recently, it housed Boom, a gay bar, and Oddfellows restaurant. The Bulldog took over the space in 2006.
Rowland doesn’t own the building, but she’s made some improvements to her bar in keeping with the building’s heritage. She added iron railings along the sidewalk and had an awning made with a rosette design that matches those carved into the building’s stonework.
This building at 401 E. Hennepin Av. has more exterior detailing than the 27 Event Center, including a stone carving of the “Three Links” that symbolize the Odd Fellows order. The windows have keystoned arches and scalloped brickwork; an exterior basement stairwell affords a look at the building’s limestone foundation.
Inside, the building retains much of its original wood flooring, wainscoting and trim. It also has 20-foot ceilings that feature their original tin pressing. The third-floor ballroom houses a software company, Smart Things, that’s in the process of moving a block away — into a larger 1905 building that originally housed the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The Bulldog building “has got character,” said Jesse O’Neill-Oine, co-founder of Smart Things. “The high ceilings, the big windows, the natural light — for a creative company, it’s good to put creative people into creative spaces.”
Rowland, who has a degree in urban studies, said buildings like the Bulldog help keep cities healthy.
“This neighborhood has retained a lot of its ethnic appeal, and the architecture contributes to that,” she said. “It’s a feeling of authenticity.”