Northwest Renovation Magazine

A Home Improvement Magazine

The year is 1962. A grand summer picnic is being held to celebrate the opening of the new Milwaukie Elks Lodge on McLoughlin Boulevard in Milwaukie, OR. The large picnic grounds behind the main lodge are filled with happy families enjoying a cookout of barbeque beef, grilled hot dogs, baked beans, potato salad, and cole slaw. Many are engaged in a game of croquet, or tossing horse shoes. The dulcet strains of Elvis Presley are heard on the PA system. Several women look like they might be Doris Day’s sister. Another resembles Sophia Loren. And just who is that short brunette in the corner with the violet eyes?


Photo by Drew Nasto

Photo by Drew Nasto

Photo by Jack Bookwalter

Photo by Drew Nasto

Photo by Drew Nasto

This same summer scenario played out for many years at the Milwaukie Elks Lodge. It was resurrected again this summer by the Mid-Century Modern League of Oregon (www.MCMLeague.org) for a one-day event, the “Mad Men Company Picnic” (Mad Men of course being the hit TV series set in the early 1960s). In addition to barbeque, lawn games, and music, there was a walk-through exhibit of early Airstream trailers. In the evening there was a screening of It Happened at the World’s Fair starring Elvis. The World’s Fair was the Seattle World’s Fair, and the year of the film was — you guessed it — 1962. Attendees for the day’s event were strongly encouraged to dress in period attire. (I did see Liz Taylor there. I know I did.) There were also a number of vintage cars that attendees had brought in for display.

As interesting and colorful as the picnic was, the highlight of the day for many (including this author) was a tour of the Milwaukie Elks Lodge itself. Built in 1962 (that year again), the building is a tour de force of Mid-Century Modern design. Some parts, the necessary parts, have been updated and modernized. But most of the esthetics of the original design have been well cared for and preserved to look as good as they did on opening day in 1962. Original features include period lighting and chandeliers, molded fiberglass seating, translucent fiberglass panels in the “starburst” pattern, stained glass in iconic 1960s motifs, original flooring, and countless chairs, tables, and bar furniture. The exterior of the building, with its protruding beams and spare lines, reflects the influence that Japanese architecture had on much of Mid-Century Modern design. The architect of the building, Frank H. Kendall, is perhaps best known today for his designs of schools, government, and other institutional buildings. He was the architect of the Gateway Elks Lodge — another masterpiece of Mid-Century design.

The lodge building slopes down from McLoughlin Boulevard and contains another two full daylight stories in the rear. What appears to be a rather modest-sized building from the street actually contains a whopping 61,000 square feet of floor area. It may come as a surprise to the passer-by that the lodge contains a large restaurant and bar, dance floor/auditorium, full fitness facility, basketball court, racquetball court, sports bar, five lounges, a pool/snooker room, card room, an eight-lane bowling alley, and numerous other meeting and event rooms. The kitchen facility is sized to serve up to 500 people. The Milwaukie Elks also put on an extensive Halloween “fright night” each October. This year’s 2011 event is titled “Fear Asylum” and will be held from October 13 through November 3. Proceeds from this event go to the charities of the Milwaukie Elks.

And now for the unpleasant news. The property that the Elks Lodge sits on will most likely be sold in the next few years. The future of the lodge building itself is uncertain. The Milwaukie Elks will continue — just maybe not in that building. The lodge was designed for a membership base of 6,000 people. As with most fraternal organizations across the country, membership today is a fraction of what it used to be. Today’s membership of 1,000 must share the cost of maintaining this grand building. Although the last few years have seen an uptick in the number of new members (along with a decrease in their average age), the return to the glory days of 6,000 members is highly unlikely. The Elks have found they are putting forth a higher proportion of their funds just to maintain the building and less toward their charitable endeavors.

The full name of the Elks is the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Since their national founding in 1868, the Elks have endeavored to provide scholarships and funding for a wide variety of community charities. The Milwaukie Elks currently support local scholarships, childhood anti-hunger efforts, a children’s eye clinic, aid for veterans, and other worthy causes. Downsizing to a building designed for a reduced membership would allow them to continue their high level of charitable funding.

What is desperately needed now is for a developer to come along with enough vision to incorporate the existing lodge building into some larger project. The new Milwaukie MAX Light Rail line will terminate across the street from the Elks’ seven-acre site. A higher density — probably mixed-use — development is all but assured. The Portland area has proven to be fertile ground for adaptive re-use of existing structures. We all, for instance, seem to have a favorite pub or restaurant that started life as something completely different. Also, office, retail, lofts, hotel, and government uses have likewise found stylish new surroundings in older buildings.

Portland is also known for its environmental ethic. Any developer who realizes that the greenest building is the one that is already there, would do well to incorporate the existing lodge into a larger project. Bragging rights would be assured (and justifiably so!).

Lastly, this high-style building of Mid-Century Modern design would be a popular draw just on its esthetics alone. After lingering through decades of obscurity, Mid-Century Modern is increasingly being appreciated for the fine art form that it is. Highlighting this style could bring noteworthy attention to a whole project.

For more information about mid-century design, contact the Mid-Century Modern League (www.MCMLeague.org or www.facebook.com/MCMLeague). The stated purpose of the organization is to “celebrate and preserve mid-century architecture and lifestyles in the greater Portland area and beyond.” (The astute reader will note that the Mid-Century Modern League’s acronym conveniently spells out the year 1950 in Roman Numerals.)

Jack Bookwalter is a freelance writer and architectural historian living in Portland, OR.

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