Elks Building – A Struggling Structure Succumbs
When it was built in 1918, the Elks building was architecturally beautiful and structurally sound, so by almost all measures, the three-story building should still be standing today. But it got off to a shaky start, and bad luck just wouldn’t let go; in 1959 an early morning fire totally destroyed it.
The idea for this ornate building began in 1913 when organizers of the newly formed Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge No. 1298 decided they needed a place to call home. In 1916, they bought a parcel of land on the southwest corner of Main and Locust Streets – a lot that at one time belonged to W. R. Spalding, the prominent lumberman in Tulare County. A year later, they accepted Woodlake contractor D. Day’s bid of $53,000 for the job. As the site was being prepared, the builder discovered, to everyone’s dismay, that the soil was like “quicksand,” and in order to stabilize it, another $12,000 was needed. The financial problem complicated the project, and embroiled it in controversy, but construction moved forward.
Eventually, financial issues were resolved and the big building began to take shape. It had a large footprint with 68 ft. of frontage on Main Street and 116 ft. on Locust, extending all the way to the alley. The ground floor was laid out for retail space and the second and third floors were designated for lodge purposes including a clubroom, lodge hall, and banquet room. A large open stairwell provided access to the floors. The interesting exterior features gave it a metropolitan look and elk heads, complete with antlers, were built into the outside walls to make it clear that the Visalia Elks owned the building. Construction was completed in 1918.
The new home for the Visalia Elks was inviting and added to the appearance of the town. Its timing, however, was problematic. Shortly after its construction, prohibition became the law of the land. Advocates of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution believed that the elimination of alcoholic beverages would be a boon for amusement, entertainment, and the general economy, as people would have more spending money. But the opposite proved true. Then came the Great Depression. The two economic impacts played havoc with discretionary spending in the country. Membership at the Visalia Elks lodge dropped by almost half.
As prohibition ended and the effects of the Great Depression faded, liquor establishments opened again and the overall financial condition of the Visalia Elks lodge improved dramatically. In the years that followed, the building hosted meetings, dinners, and events of all kinds and became an important venue in Visalia. By 1952, the local lodge was ready to pay off the loan on its building. Clyde Lary and George Young, the only living charter members at the time, were asked to plan a celebration to honor this accomplishment. At 8:30 p.m. on January 19, 1952, the members gathered on the Main Street side of the lodge and ceremoniously burned the mortgage.
The Elks building was so beautiful that it became a postcard.
A few years later, another fire drew a crowd at the lodge, but this time it was not a cause for celebration. On Tuesday, December 1, 1959, shortly after midnight, a fire broke out in the building. Exactly when it started is unclear, but at about 5 a.m., E. R. Curran, a visitor to Visalia from Modesto, noticed smoke coming from an upstairs window. John Copley, Visalia City Councilman and bakery owner, also saw the early morning fire on his way to work about the same time.
The fire department, located just a few blocks away, received the alarm and responded quickly with men and equipment. But by the time they arrived, the blaze was well established and all the floors were engulfed. Speculation placed the origin of the fire to the basement, and it was believed that the stairwell allowed the flames to rapidly race to the top.
Fire Chief Walter Wood and the firefighters fought the flames valiantly, but it was clearly a losing battle. As the flames extended out through the windows, ash drifted skyward then settled onto city streets. Crowds of people, including John and his son Duane, stood nearby, and watched as interior wood framing material burned and floors collapsed. When the flames subsided, it was an eerie scene with exterior walls over a hundred feet high towering over the ruble. Duane and his father were lucky, as shortly after they left the scene, part of the east wall fell near where they were standing.
Almost immediately, the cleanup effort began. The Kossian demolition company of Fresno was hired for $15,000 to do the job. Quick work was required as nearby businesses including McMahan’s Furniture, Reeve’s Shoes, Huffaker Candy, Bon’s Jewelers, Schellings, Visalia Hardware, and Montgomery Ward were forced to temporarily close, not because of damage from the fire, but due to the danger of falling debris. Traffic was also impacted as portions of Locust and Main Streets were forced to close.
Complicating the speedy cleanup was the smoldering debris. Even after three days, smoke was still rising from the destroyed building. One of the interesting discoveries found in the debris was the lodge safe. It was bulged out of shape from the intense heat. As a precaution, it was removed from the site and allowed to cool off for a couple of days. When it was opened, only charred and unrecognizable contents were found.
Once the remains of the building cooled, and the demolition completed, the insured property was sold. Immediately, the Elks began making plans for a new building. They bought several acres of land on west Main Street and on September 9, 1962, less than three years after the disastrous fifire, they dedicated their new $350,000 quarters at 3100 W. Main St., where it remains today.