Sunday, December 17, 2006
When you have a soft spot in your head for historic preservation, coupled with special interests in the structures of bygone glories like fraternal organizations and train stations - large spaces designed for hundreds of people that are now empty - you are apt to get your heart broken quite a lot. I had it happen Friday.
Our lodge had just finished a funeral service for one of our members, and so I was already in a melancholy mood. I was driving through downtown Indianapolis, when I remembered one of those errands I had meant to accomplish for the last five or six years and never got around to it. I'm not a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, but at one time in the U.S. the I.O.O.F. rivaled the Freemasons in membership. They are similar in their structure, their ceremonies and even their terminology.
In 1908, they built an impressive 16-story building at the corner of Pennsylvania and Washington Streets. For a brief two years, it was the tallest building in the city. Apart from it being a lucrative corner for office space rental income, its principal feature was its large auditorium. But unlike most groups who built their auditoriums on the ground floor, the Indianapolis Odd Fellows turned their design upside down. Their large and ornate assembly hall was located on the appropriately numbered 13th floor, with three story-high windows that overlooked the city skyline.
After the Depression, the Odd Fellows did not have the same kind of growth enjoyed by the Masons. They divested themselves of the building sometime in the 1960s or 70s, and among its tenants are the national offices of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. No outside evidence remains of the IOOF's former ownership, but I have long heard about that auditorium, tantalizingly up there on the 13th floor. So it was with a certain nervous eagerness I took the elevator up to the "Penthouse' floor of One North Pennsylvania on Friday, with the perhaps childish hope that remodelings and desecration by subsequent owners may have still preserved some of its former grandeur. Perhaps some developer with a little vision had saved the unique space.
When the doors opened, it was clear that the floor had been remodeled recently, and that more was going on. One attorney's office was there, but the rest of the floor seemed deserted. At the end of the oddly zig-zagging hall was a door for a now-defunct restaurant called "Magic Moments." The location clearly was not magic for this business, as it was long gone from the premises. Tables and chairs were tossed everywhere, light fixtures dangled from broken acoustic tiles, and there was little that seemed magical about this place, much less impressive. Just another vacant piece of unrented office space in a bland building, with little to recommend it but an incredible view from its floor to ceiling windows.
Then I looked up. Through the twisted rails of the unremarkable drop ceiling, my eyes followed the wires that they dangled from, up another twenty feet to an arching plaster ceiling. Magnificent scrollwork poked out between the ghastly tangle of flexible heating ducts, Romex and data cables. Scalloped molding in ochre, red and brown hues were hiding up there in the darkness, pockmarked by crumbling plaster and defaced by holes punched in it to make it easier for modern crews to hang their dull, lifeless, ordinary camouflage to cover it all up.
Once I knew it was there, I explored a little more to see if any remnant could be found of a proscenium or other details. Every stairwell or empty office yielded nothing but disappointment. More than a few cinder block walls have been erected across the space as firewalls or supports for the new shortened ceiling. Yet I knew another two stories of the auditorium walls were back there somewhere. Finally, I discovered the stairway leading to the roof. At the 15th floor level, I discovered literally a hole in the wall, carved into an office for the defunct restaurant. Three sides were unpainted drywall, erected as false walls for a little privacy. But the fourth wall was the top cornice of an arch, with its massive piece of scrollwork dominating the tiny office space.
One more flight up to the 16th floor revealed the attic space over the old auditorium. At last I got a sense of just how large an area the room had once occupied, stretching out under the rafters. But there was no beauty here, or forgotten magic. Only the crisscrossing supports that held the hidden plaster ceiling below, itself invisible to the unknowing, uncaring tenants below.
The Indiana Odd Fellows have mostly been forgotten, certainly here in my hometown. They faded away, and are now reduced to an office out west past the Speedway, and a small rental space in an office park not far from my house. Their once thriving fraternity has all but vanished. And their crowning achievement in our downtown is but a forgotten footnote known only to students of the obscure. In that lies a cautionary tale for my own Masonic brethren who regard their own temples with contempt as "white elephants." They are only an eyesore if we let them become so. They are only fodder for the wrecking ball if we stop caring, stop maintaining them, stop planning for the future. The builders who came before us had vision and courage and optimism. They built these places for us, their descendants, and for future generations. They built them not just as crowning achievements, but as a plateau from which we were expected to take our fraternities to the next level. Can't we have enough vision and courage and optimism to at least save and maintain them?