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Time Machine: Elks Club fire in Cedar Rapids

Members rebuilt downtown, then sold to chamber

Spectators watch as a deliberately set fire levels what was left of the Elks Lodge in Cedar Rapids after a January 1960 fire destroyed the club. Loomis Brothers, the company that built the lodge in 1911, used the fire and a wrecking ball to demolish the remains. A new club was built on the site, 424 First Ave. NE.

“Hundreds of Cedar Rapids Elks Club members were left to forage for their lunch and noontime nap in new pastures today as their lodge home smoldered in the wake of a $250,000 Sunday fire,” city editor Jack Illian wrote in a front-page story in the Jan. 25, 1960, Gazette.

Lodge 251 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was established in Cedar Rapids on Feb. 3, 1893, at the year-old Arcade Hotel on North First Street.

The fraternal organization met sporadically, but by 1901, it had moved to the third floor of Fred W. Faulkes’ new Jim Block, the building at First Avenue and Third Street named for Faulkes’ son, James Nelson Faulkes.

Almost a decade later, in 1910. BPOE lodge members agreed to raise their dues to pay for a building of their own. They chose a site at First Avenue and Fifth Street NE.

Construction had begun when the cornerstone was laid April 17. An inscription, “Cedar Rapids Lodge No. 251, B.P.O. Elks, 1911,” faced First Avenue.

James L. Bever Jr., secretary of the lodge, placed a box filled with newspapers and lodge documents in the cornerstone.

In his dedication address, the Rev. Joseph Fort Newton of Cedar Rapids’ Liberal Christian Church (later Peoples Church) said, “You have now become a permanent institution in the city. You have a place of which you can be proud, in which you can meet each other and your friends.”

Less than seven months later, the building was dedicated. Among the notable speakers were Des Moines Capital Editor Lafayette Young and Iowa Governor B.F. Carroll.

FIRE AND ICE

The Elks Club was an established part of downtown Cedar Rapids when it caught fire on Sunday, Jan. 24, 1960.

Assistant Fire Chief John Kopecky said the fire appeared to have started in a second-floor dressing room used by the club’s waiters. It apparently smoldered for hours in the catwalks above the ceilings before anyone noticed it.

A watchman checked the building at 2 a.m. and at 5 a.m. and saw nothing unusual.

Around 8 a.m., the first alarm was turned in by a YMCA resident who saw smoke coming from a window on the west side of the building.

Firefighters were there in minutes, but dense smoke prevented them from pinpointing where the fire was located.

In another hour, flames broke through the roof and shot more than 30 feet into the air.

Pumpers sprayed water on the building while aerials poured more water on the roof.

As soon as one spot was extinguished, another blaze would shoot up.

The heat from the fire was so intense that it blistered the helmets of firefighters trying to make their way up the stairs to the second floor.

By the time the fire was under control, firefighters had poured about 450,000 gallons of water onto the building, so much that a 6-foot-wide wave surged from the front door and down First Avenue.

In the cold January temperatures, hovering around zero, sheets of ice covered hoses, ladders and firemen.

Donning gas masks, firefighters disappeared into the clouds of smoke to check for hot spots.

TEMPORARY HOME

The club’s documents were buried under the rubble in steel cabinets and safes. Several other fraternal orders in the city offered the Elks temporary space until the BPOE could rebuild.

The final cost of the fire came to $191,114.17. The building was insured.

The club members had just finished remodeling the lodge in the fall of 1959 and had been preparing to host the Iowa State Elks Association convention in June 1960. A new site for the convention had to be found.

The Cedar Rapids Knights of Pythias had built a hall next door to the Elks — at 420 First Ave. NE — in 1912 and were in the process of building a new hall on Old Marion Road. The Elks Club bought the Pythians’ old hall shortly after the fire and met there while their new lodge was being built on the site of the one that had burned.

By March 1961, the site had been cleared, and in October, the club applied for a building permit for a $221,147, 10,600-square-foot building at 418-424 First Ave. NE.

In August 1977, the old Knights of Pythias hall was torn down to make way for the parking ramp adjacent to the civic center.

ELKS MOVE ON

With the economy suffering and enrollment in the club declining, the Elks decided in December 1981 to sell its downtown building.

The Cedar Rapids/Marion Chamber of Commerce, then at 127 Third St. NE, was facing the end of its lease and looking for a new home. It offered the Elks $300,000 for the building. The offer was accepted.

The Elks already had moved to a temporary home at the Olde Towne Club under the Legion Lanes bowling alley at 421 Fourth Ave. SE.

The lodge moved to 2739 Sixth St. SW in November 1983, a building that had previously housed pizza restaurants and bars.

A final move came in 1988 — to the former RUSCO building at 801 33rd Ave. SW.

Auxiant Properties bought the chamber building on June 7, 2013, and began renovations that included adding a second story.