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Preserving the Past

Debate continues on fate
of fire-ravaged Elks building

Structure has interesting
history, architecture

By Laura Goodwin
Contributing Writer

(October 2010) – With the controversial decision concerning the former Elks Lodge building to be decided, the debate continues over restoration versus demolition. The City of Madison has instructed its building inspector to apply for a demolition permit, citing public safety concerns. Carolyn Barr, owner of the building and its restoration specialist, is continuing to lobby to restore the structure.

Madison Elks Lodge

Photo by Don Ward

The Madison Elks Lodge building
was destroyed by fire in August 2006.
Only the outer walls remain.

Madison Mayor Tim Armstrong has stated he is reluctant to push for demolition and would like to see the building saved. But time is running out. Armstrong has said he wants to see some action taken soon by the owner toward renovating the building because of the structural dangers it poses in its current condition. It has endured four winters without a roof.
Although it cannot be proved, it is believed to be the oldest and continuous operating Elks Lodge in the country. The history of the building itself is entwined in the club for which it was named. This history, pieced together through local documents, shows a humble beginning. It was built next to Madison’s first City Hall, at 420 West St. Fire devastated the building in August 2006, leaving a brick shell still standing.
The Elks minutes ledger book was salvaged from the fire. It had been located in a filing cabinet in the building’s office.
According to Tony Steinhardt, an Elks leader, “The cabinet had fallen through the floor from the office in the mezzanine to the second floor.”
It was through Steinhardt’s efforts that the book was dried and salvaged. In September 2006, the Elks gave the book to the Jefferson County Historical Society Research Library and Archives on “indefinite loan.” Efforts are being made by library volunteers to digitally image the historical document, preserving it for future viewing.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks started nationally in 1868, known at first as the “Jolly Corks.” It began as a drinking club, opposed to New York City’s vision concerning the opening hours of public taverns. Madison’s chapter first met on Nov. 1, 1899, according to the Elks minutes book, “for the purpose of organizing a lodge.” Their charter was granted on Nov. 8., with the original meeting location at the Madison Cycle and Athletic Club.
It was not until 1902 that the club’s minutes reveal their intentions of finding “a new home.”
A committee to locate real estate was appointed at the same meeting. A later meeting reported that “the Sanxay (house) being very favorably spoken of.” This house was possibly located on Elm St., according to Ron Grimes, archivist for the JCHS Research Library.
In early 1903, the club decided that the committee “be given authority to purchase for any sum near $6,000,” concerning the Sanxay. It was proposed that $3,000 of these monies be raised by selling stock to its own membership. However, Mr. F.O. Suise was not willing to budge on his asking price of $8,000. In April of that year, the minutes reported that membership voted that club trustees “close a deal” with a Mrs. Lund for her property on West Street. It was moved that $300 of treasury money be used to secure a $1,000 loan, with $100 cash payable to Mrs. Lund, obtaining a “bond for a deed.”
The club’s building committee of 1904 secured additional property from City Hall and was instructed to proceed, at once, with the new building.
The building later made headlines in The Madison Courier on a less desirable note. On June 11, 1910, the story detailed that “the sheriff and police searched the Elks Club, removing 14 barrels of beer and nine quarts of whiskey. Help was needed to roll out the beer and take it next door to the City Hall.”
The confiscated alcohol was later returned, off the record.
Link Ludington, local architectural historian for the Indiana State Museum, reported, “The correct name of the architectural style of the Elks building is ‘Beaux-Arts Neoclassical’.” This refers to a “classical antiquities” preservation style taught at L’Ecoles des Beaux-Arts, a series of French architectural schools most prominent in Paris. The style became popular in America in the late 19th century. The architect of the Elks Building could have very well been French trained, although his name is unknown.
The lodge is listed as a “contributing building,” according to Camille Fife of the Westerly Group Inc. Fife compiled, wrote and submitted the 2005 application for Madison’s National Historic Landmark District. Most structures in the application are listed only by name, address, architectural style and approximate year constructed. The distinct “contributing buildings,” however, do further describe their architecture in great detail. While the Elks Lodge is inaccurately listed as circa 1920, it does go on to distinctly describe the building’s physical characteristics, including the windows, arches, doorways, roof and other prominent structures. The description finishes with the phrase that it is “adorned with an Elk head statue.”
Michele Curan of the National Historic Landmarks Program’s Midwest Regional Office emphasized that restoring the Elks Lodge would be vital to maintaining Madison’s historical status. “It is important to, at least, restore the facade of the Elks building in order to preserve the historic streetscape,” she said. “In a National Historic Landmark District that includes most of Historic Madison, the views up and down the streets, or the streetscape, contribute to the integrity of the NHL. Incremental changes to and the destruction of historic buildings and streetscapes add up, over time, and will compromise the integrity of
Historic Madison to the point where its NHL status and other historic recognitions will be considered for de-designation.”

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