Monday, July 27, 2009

Odd Fellows Hall, Part 5: Auto Row

Car stories keep popping up in anecdotes people tell about the early days when the Aurora Branch met in the Odd Fellows Hall. And with good reason! That block of South LaSalle Street was “an early automobile commercial center in Aurora” and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

When you take a close look at the buildings that flank the Odd Fellows Hall, you see that they were originally designed as automobile dealerships.
Coats Garage, Odd Fellows Hall, Berthold-Hanson Cadillac Dealership, Theiss’ Central Garage, Finch and McCullouch block (printing and book binding)

Also amazing to note—this block of LaSalle Street, between Benton and Fox, was once on the original Lincoln Highway route through Aurora. No wonder they were selling cars there. This map is from a reprint of A Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway, Fifth Edition, 1924, page 319.

Nowadays car dealerships consist of a showroom, offices, and service garage, surrounded by a massive parking lot with rows and rows of new and used cars. Not so in the early 1900s. Quoting the brochure “Aurora, An Architectural Portrait,” p. 43: “Automobile sales and service buildings developed as a distinctive building type in the early 1900s. They were designed to blend in with other commercial buildings and were generally located on the fringes of the central business districts.”

Immediately north (left) of the Odd Fellows Hall is the Coats Garage. Coats Garage “was the first automobile sales and service building built in the LaSalle Street Auto Row Historic District specifically for this use. Constructed in 1907, it still features the original elevator that transports cars to the second and third floors for storage and servicing. Coat’s line of cars in 1912 [the year the Odd Fellows Hall was built] included Chalmers, E.M.F., Hudson, and Flanders. It was constructed with large “I” beams that span the width of the building, providing a large open space without columns for the display of automobiles. The current owner indicated that 30 modern cars can be stored on each floor.” This is probably the dealership where Fred Schleifer bought his Hudson Terraplane.

On the south side (right) of the Odd Fellows Hall, a Cadillac dealer occupied a one-story building. Recalling her experiences as a child in the early 1940s, my aunt Jane wrote in 1993: “Once in a while Jim and I would go out of the door at the back of the large kitchen and crawl over the metal fire escape and climb onto the roof of the building next to the Odd Fellows Hall. This building had skylight windows where we could look down onto the floor below. It was a Cadillac sales building—beautiful cars to see.” (The skylights are still there.)

Berthold-Hanson Cadillac was an enduring business. Here is their advertisement from the 1964 Aurora City Directory.
Continuing south we come to the Theiss’ Central Garage Building. This off-center photo does not do justice to the pleasing symmetry of the matching, two-story bay windows. Again quoting the architectural tour brochure: “Another automobile sales and service building, the Theiss building was constructed around 1912 in the Commercial Style. It also has the original elevator; however, unlike the Coats Garaged, this building utilized the new technique of fire-proof reinforced concrete slabs for the floors. A 1912 advertisement indicated that the Buick Maxwell, Apperson and Baker Electric cars were sold at the Central Garage.”

Completing the block was the Finch & McCullouch building, erected in 1907. At the time it was one of the most complete printers and binderies in Illinois, and the company remained at that location for more than 70 years. The other side of the block is also interesting for its fine examples of Victorian era commercial buildings. That side of the street was used as the set for the movie, The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. Davis was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. LaSalle Street was used to represent his hometown in Pennsylvania. (We rented the movie hoping to catch a glimpse of the Odd Fellows Hall, but only the opposite side of the street was shown. All was not lost, however, because it’s a really good movie.)


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Odd Fellows Hall, Part 4: Car Buying on S. LaSalle

A phone call from my uncle Jim Greer started me on a surprising journey through Odd Fellows Hall history.

He told me a story about Fred Schleifer who used to bring his wife Alodia to church in the late 1930s. Since Fred was not a member of the Aurora Branch, he was more interested in the car dealers on South LaSalle Street than in church meetings. Jimmy recalls that one Sunday Fred bought a Hudson Terraplane.

We don’t know when Fred Schleifer bought his new car, but we can guess. The Aurora Branch moved to the Odd Fellows Hall sometime in 1935, and Terraplanes were manufactured only from 1934 to 1936. As for which model he bought, Uncle Jim recalls the car’s “suicide doors,” that is, doors that open from the front, like those shown on the above Terraplane advertisement. This model is a 1935 Terraplane Deluxe coach that sold for $645 and weighed 2665 pounds. According to ads, “all Terraplanes used a 212-cid straight six that put out 88 bhp and could accelerate from 0 to 50 mph in 14.05 seconds.”

Possibly a better candidate for Fred’s car is this 1936 Terraplane Custom touring sedan This car weighed 2,875 pounds and cost $740.

Fred needed a good car because he had to drive to work from his home in Kaneville to Montgomery, Illinois, a roundtrip of 30 miles. He worked at Lyon Metal with James T. Greer, and it was because of that connection that he met his second wife, Alodia Howard, which took him to LaSalle Street and the car dealerships.

Jim Greer’s first job at Lyon Metal was making shipping crates. A look at the 1930 census shows Fred Schleifer doing exactly the same thing. Obviously they struck up a friendship because Jim Greer never met a stranger. Fred was 48 years old, to Jim’s 34. He was born in Pennsylvania and he had a wife and three children living at home. Sometime in the next five years his wife passed away.

Meanwhile, Alodia Howard moved to Illinois from southeastern Idaho after her husband was killed in a mine explosion. He had belonged to the Moose Fraternity, and so his widow and three children (Lynn, Wallace, and Georgia) were eligible to live at Mooseheart, the “Child City,” a few miles north of Aurora along Route 25. From the Mooseheart website, we learn that it is “a home for children and teens in need, from infancy through high school. Dedicated in July 1913 by the Moose fraternal organization, MOOSEHEART cares for youth whose families are unable, for a wide variety of reasons, to care for them. Some have lost one or both parents; others are living in environments that are simply not conducive to healthy growth and development.” Alodia Howard found employment at Mooseheart and the children lived in the cottages.

It wasn’t long before James T. Greer decided to introduce Fred and Alodia to each other, and the rest is history.

As I said at the beginning, the story of the Terraplane started me on a journey that uncovered some unusual facts about South LaSalle Street and the automobile businesses that grew up next to the Odd Fellows Hall. Keep checking back. There’s more to this story.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Who Are the Odd Fellows Anyway?

A couple of people recently told me they’d never heard of the “Odd Fellows.” They wanted to know who or what they were. Here's what I found out:

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F) is a fraternal organization, similar to the Elks or Moose. It was organized in England in the late 1700s and began in America in 1819. They got their name because at that time “it was deemed odd to find people organized for the purpose of giving aid to those in need without recognition and pursuing projects for the benefits of all mankind.” (from I.O.O.F. webpage)

Lodges also provided lodge members with a social community that would help in times of need. This support was especially important because, in those days, there were no governmental safety nets and very little insurance of any kind.

The worldwide emblem of the Odd Fellows is a three-link chain with the letters that stand for friendship, love, and truth and symbolizes the fraternity of the members.
I am familiar with this chain because it was emblazoned on a banner that hung in the large room on the second floor where the Aurora Branch met. I don't remember much else about this gold-fringed banner, except that the all-seeing eye of God was embroidered above the chain and seemed to be watching all our proceedings.

The group that built the Odd Fellows Hall on South LaSalle Street in 1912 was organized on January 3, 1849, “by virtue of a dispensation granted by the grand master of the grand lodge of Illinois.” One of the officers who conducted the ceremony to institute the Wabonsie Lodge 45 was E.L. Howard of the St. Charles lodge “who walked from St. Charles to Aurora thru 14 inches of snow to attend, there being no trains running between the two towns because of the heavy snow.”

The Wabonsie Lodge 45 united with the Ben Hur Lodge 870, the Aurora Encampment, and the Minnehahah Rebekah Lodge 77 and Tirzah Rebekah lodge 488 (“Rebekahs” are the affiliated women’s organizations) to build the hall. These names are familiar to me because they were listed on a wooden plaque in the club room on the south side of the second floor, the one that held the pool table, poker table, leather sofa and chairs, and in the 1950s, a television set.

As also reported in the centennial edition of the Aurora Beacon News, September 5, 1937, the Odd Fellows were true to their fraternal duties: “the Odd Fellow fraternity maintains two homes in Illinois, the I.O.O.F. Old Folks home at Mattoon where there are about 200 aged Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, also the I.O.O. F. orphans home at Lincoln, with about the same number of orphans of members of the order. Each of these places is a small community in itself with its own school, hospital, chapel, gymnasium, laundry, power plant and farm produce.”

Although I’ve known about the Odd Fellows all my life, I was surprised to learn that the organization is still alive and well. Check out their webpage.

Here’s an excerpt:
“We are the family of Oddfellowship, composed of Men, Women, and Youth, believing in a supreme being, the creator and preserver of the universe, who have come together in our local communities having the same beliefs and values as others, that; Friendship, Love and Truth are the basic guidelines that we need to follow in our daily lives. Through working in our local Communities, States, Provinces, or Nationally we understand that we can make a difference in the lives of people in our World….

“Our deep history began in North America, with the United States and Canada in 1819, and is continually expanding throughout the World where we are a worldwide fraternity in 26 countries. The Odd Fellows and Rebekahs are striving to make the world a better place in which to live, seeking To Improve and Elevate the Character of Mankind.

“The members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows are sometimes referred to "Odd Fellows" or "Rebekahs." Odd Fellows have also become known in many areas as "The Three Link Fraternity" which is evidenced by our world wide "Three Link Emblem" which stands for Friendship, Love and Truth. These three links symbolize the chain that binds our members together and illustrates that our Communities, States, Provinces and Nations are strongest when joined together.”

As it turns out, small branches of the LDS church often met in Odd Fellows Halls in the early to mid 20th century. Perhaps odd fellows and peculiar people just naturally go together.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Odd Fellows Hall, Part 3: For Sale

You can own a piece of history. The Odd Fellows Hall is for sale—yes, right now! Buy it today for a cool $575,000, and that’s a bargain because it has been appraised at $1 million (in better economic times). Here’s the link. (Click on “Commercial Property” search. Type in the number of the MLS listing “07120675” and set the pull-down menu to “Mixed Use.”)

The real estate blurb states: “An Exceptional Historic Building In The Downtown Of Aurora. Building Is Awaiting The Discerning Investor Interested In Turning The Building Into Multiple Income Generating Opportunities. Owner Financing And City Grant Money Available.”
We took this photo when we were in Aurora a couple of weeks ago. Although we didn’t connect with a realtor and therefore did not tour the inside, we learned that the building has 17,000 square feet in all (plus a full basement), with 5,000 square feet on each of the first two floors and 7,000 square feet on the third floor. The storefront on the lower right still has the original tin ceiling. The building has new windows and, presumably, an HVAC system. In the “olden days” the windows were double-hung and both the lower and upper sashes could be opened. The air conditioning consisted of a couple of ceiling fans. (For a photo of the building in 1937, see blog post “The Odd Fellows Hall, Part 1” from May 19, 2009.)

The cornerstone plaque on the front shows that the Odd Fellows Hall was built in 1912. An article published on September 5, 1937, in the centennial edition of the Aurora Beacon News gives more information:

“Members of the various branches of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows have played an important part in the development of Aurora. It is one of the oldest fraternal societies in the city, the first lodge being organized by pioneers 88 years ago [January 1849]… The lodge now has a fine home in the Odd Fellows Hall temple. A fine three story building, the first floor of which is occupied by one of the city’s pioneer hardware merchants, the second floor comprises a well equipped club room and the third floor is given over to a large, well furnished meeting hall, a banquet room and a well equipped kitchen.”

The newspaper wasn’t exactly right (hence its well-earned nickname “The Be-Confused”), because the kitchen was on the second floor. The “large, well furnished meeting hall” on the third floor was designed for lodge ceremonies and meetings. As children, we were not supposed to go in there—so of course, we did. Because it was forbidden, it seemed dark and mysterious (and we didn’t dare turn on the lights). It had a raised platform around three sides of the room (about six inches high and 4 feet deep), with three (or so) impressive chairs in the center along each wall.

When my aunt Jane was a child, she refused to go there and in 1993 she explained her reasons: “[My big brother] Jim would tell me about what was on the third floor of the Odd Fellows Hall, and it was enough to keep me from ever wanting to go up there. He said there were black cloths draped over large black boxes and that was where the Odd Fellows stayed whenever there was church on Sunday. Well, being five or six years old at the time, I believed him and never went up to the third floor.…

“Before [the branch began meeting in the Seventh Day Adventist Church] I finally did have courage enough to go and see what was on the third floor. Jim was right, at least for two out of three things–there were big black boxes and they were covered with black cloths, but I never saw any Odd Fellows.”

(A mystery solved is quite mundane. It was the practice in those days to cover the grand piano and other pieces of furniture with heavy cloths to keep the dust off.)

Because we couldn’t contact the realtor for a tour when we were recently in Aurora, we did the next best thing. We climbed up a fire escape to the third floor and looked in the window. (Only the landing and a few stairs show in this photo. The rest is hidden behind a trash container.)

The building is built into a hill, so the back stairway to the third floor is only one flight. Of course, we had to cross the parking lot of the adjoining property to reach the fire escape, and it was exceedingly rusty and wobbly (1912 vintage?). Undaunted, I put my camera up to the window and snapped this photo.

Hmmm, the room doesn’t seem mysterious at all. The hardwood floors, woodwork, and lighting fixtures are all original, as is the riser along the wall on the right. I believe what looks like blue wainscoting is a protective covering to protect the wood from paint overspray while the building is prepared for sale.

So, are you that discerning investor the listing agent has in mind?

My husband thinks the LDS Church should buy it and turn it into a visitor center, honoring the early Church in the Midwest where small branches often met in rented halls. What do you think?