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Billy Webb Elks lodge at North Tillamook Street and WIlliams Avenue was damaged by fire on Sept. 11 and now seeks funding

COURTESY PHOTO: BILLY WEBB ELKS LODGE - The Billy Webb Elks lodge was damaged by fire on Sept 11, 2021. The historic building is now seeking funds to restore its ballroom and reopen as a rentable venue. The historic Billy Webb Elks lodge at North Tillamook Street and Williams Avenue was damaged by fire on Sept. 11. Owners of the historically Black lodge believe trespassers started a fire on the back porch which spread to the ballroom of the 3,500 square foot building.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Fire and water damage to the Bill Webb Elks lodge on N. Williams Ave. The Lodge Exalted Ruler, Louis McLemore, estimates that between maintenance, general overhead, and insurance premiums, it costs $100,000 a year to keep the lodge at 6 N. Tillamook Street open and operational. Insurance adjusters were still working on an estimate for the repairs bill at time of press.

On Sept. 20, McLemore showed the media where the back stairs had been set on fire and how it spread to the back entrance and roof. He does not think the fire was arson. Homeless people have previously gathered on the five-foot wide strip of the property to charge their phones, steal copper from the air conditioners and have campfires.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The Lodge Exalted Ruler, Louis McLemore. The 1925 building received a $2M remodel in 2008 to restore it close to its original appearance. This included ADA upgrades inside and out including a wheelchair ramp, restroom updates, an updated bar area, a new roof, and new mechanical systems. The work was done with some volunteer assistance and donated materials from the National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon.

The Elks recently received a grant from Prosper Portland for $192,000 to install a commercial catering kitchen in the summer of 2021.

COURTESY PHOTO: RESTORE OREGON - The Billy Webb Elks Lodge when it was a YWCA on opening in 1925.

Historic

In August 2021, the lodge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which made it easier to get government grants. As the Albina neighborhood has been gentrified around it by new apartments, cool offices and a New Seasons, the wooden Elks Lodge has persisted in its use as a meeting place for Portland's African American community.

The building began as a YWCA for African American women in the 1920s. During World War II it was a USO recreation center for African American servicemembers and an emergency shelter during the Vanport Flood. In 1956, the Portland Branch of the NAACP established their first official headquarters at the lodge. Since 1959 it has been home to the Improved Benevolent & Protective Order of the Elks (IBPOEW).

The IBPOEW's goal is "uplifting the surrounding African American community through fellowship, benevolence, charity, citizenship programs, economic, and business objectives," according to a media release about the fire.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The ceiling in the main room at the Billy Webb Elks Lodge. It will be some time before the Elks can get income from renting out the facilities. The sky is visible through the roof which was replaced in 2005.

Fire

Because of the fire, the Elks cannot use the building for fundraising events so is having to go virtual, appealing to established media to spread the word on social media. A GoFundMe has been set up to help the lodge as they recover and rebuild.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Elks leaders Lou McLemore and Katelyn Van Genderen of Restore Oregon in the burned building on Sept. 20, 2021. Katelyn Van Genderen, Preservation Programs Director at Restore Oregon, said there "It's not a patch job, they're going to have to replace the timbers. There also may be "some gaps" in the Elks' insurance leaving some repairs not covered.

"Because of its historic status we don't want to destroy what we call 'character defining features', so the fenestration of the windows has to stay the same," Van Genderen told the Business Tribune. She added that the Elks need to try to run the venue as a revenue-generating business without changing the historic nature. The Elks have just applied for a $3,025 grant for a feasibility study of options for uses for this building. The fire will add another delay.

Van Genderen added that it is quite easy to demolish historic buildings in Oregon. Being on the National Register of Historic Places can delay demolition, as can accepting grants, but nothing is safe from a developer who wants to build high and modern on an inner-city lot. Especially one close to the boutique food and pampering services of North Williams.

The main room with the stage if often rented out for weddings and funerals. There are still desks from when it was rented to schools to use as expanded classroom space during the pandemic's six-foot social distancing phase, through ML20, the former Trail Blazer Maurice Lucas's foundation.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The historic Billy Webb Elks lodge at North Tillamook Street and Williams Avenue was damaged by fire on Sept. 11.

Cultural capital

Restore Oregon's Executive Director, Nicole Possert, said the Elks lodge is more a cultural than architectural treasure, an important part of the Albina community. The Elks used to be divided by race into the Black Elks and the White Elks, and the Black Elks in Portland were often the only place to Black philanthropic business to socialize. McLemore recognized the PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - The historic Billy Webb Elks lodge at North Tillamook Street and Williams Avenue was damaged by fire on Sept. 11. Owners of the historically Black lodge believe trespassers started a fire on the back porch which spread to the ballroom of the 3,500 square foot building. 
Elk Daughters as essential to running the club. The hall was named after band leader Billy Webb of the Rose City Elks Lodge.

Local historian Raymond Burrell called the lodge "an iconic public destination that echoes early Portland, Oregon's African American history, culture and civil rights activism in the city" and "a beacon and safe space for education, racial and cultural improvements, racial integration and understanding, civil rights, and civil and societal participation."

The Billy Webb Elks Lodge has insurance coverage. It is estimated that full repairs and mitigation could take at least a year to complete. Most of its operating budget comes from rental of its ballroom, kitchen and bar for events, classes, meetings, and shows.

Last week McLemore said, "We were starting to gain so much momentum, and after a year of COVID-19 closures and planning, things were taking off...and now this devastating event has set everything back."

COURTESY PHOTO: RESTORE OREGON - The historic Billy Webb Elks lodge at North Tillamook Street and Williams Avenue in 2005.

New Elks

Elks membership has declined from a peak of 150 to 30, the Exalted Ruler, Louis McLemore, told the Business Tribune. He said the Elks need to increase their membership to be able to fulfill their mission of raising money and putting on events for the community. He said the new members don't have to be from Black-owned businesses.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - 1980s chic in the entrance to the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, with air purifiers and dehumidifiers. "A lot of them think they have to be 60 or 70 years old, but we want the young people with ideas and the ability to get out there and work. This is known as the old folks on time, and we're just trying to get a new identity out here."

He's looking for all sorts of professions and finding a new cause each year to make a priority. "Their contribution could be their time, or their expertise. I feel we could use all of that. Could the Elks go remote? Do they need a building?

"Well, you could. But it's better to have a clubhouse for our members to be able to come and socialize, to sit and talk and then go into their groups."

Developers often offer the nonprofit the market rate for the building, but the Elks are not selling.

Van Genderen said "It's lucrative for people to sell these buildings to a developer, and then they can come in and tear them down and build six more structures in the same amount of space. But then we lose our connection to our historic neighborhoods and communities like Albina. Our effort is to help people save endangered places is to avoid exactly that thing."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - 1980s chic in the Billy Webb Elks Lodge.

New Elk blood wanted

McLemore raised two sons in Los Angeles in the 1990s who found a better life in Oregon after attending the University of Oregon in Eugene, while McLemore moved to Houston to manage a Walmart. His sons encouraged hm to move near them in Portland 10 years ago when he retired. "When I moved here, I was asking, 'Where are all the black folk?' It was hard because I was working downtown and living in Beaverton. And they said, 'Let's go over here to the lodge. And I've been here ever since."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Fire damaged the roof beams and water damaged the drop ceiling at the Billy Webb ElkS Lodge on North Williams Ave on Sept 11. The Elks are now trying to fundraise for repairs not fully covered by insurance.  It was 10 years ago, he applied himself and six years ago became the Exalted Ruler.

"I just wanted to use my expertise. I got really involved in it."

Does he think the Elks need rebranding?

"Yes, we really do need that rebrand because this organization started back in the early 1900s and a lot of things haven't changed. Everything is word of mouth; members go out and try to bring in other members."

He says even in the pandemic the national Elks organization would not allow them to conduct meetings by video conference because of "security concerns". The Billy Webb Elks ran some radio ads a few years back but have little footprint on social or traditional media. Restore Oregon organized the media day to use traditional media to draw attention to the online fundraiser.

Billy Webb Elks Lodge

6 N. Tillamook St., Portland, OR 97227


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