Effort to Save Black Landmark

Billy Webb Elks Lodge damaged by suspect fire

9/21/2021, 4:22 p.m.
A gofundme.com campaign is underway to help raise donations to make repairs to the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, a landmark ...
Louis McLemore, exalted ruler of the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, surveys the damage from a Sept. 11 fire that started outside the building and spread to the walls and roof of the landmark building. A gofundme.com campaign is gathering donations to make repairs. Photos courtesy Restore Oregon, Saving Historic Places.
A gofundme.com campaign is underway to help raise donations to make repairs to the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, a landmark structure serving the Black community that was extensively damaged by fire on Sept. 11.

Neighbors first reported the fire which broke out during the early morning hours on the lodge’s outdoor deck and spread, burning up through the roof.

The lodge and nonprofit Restore Oregon believe the fire was started by trespassers who were cooking or had some sort of fire that spread out of control.

Thankfully, the fire was reported quickly enough that it was contained in time to save much of the building, organizers for the fundraiser said. Unfortunately, the blaze left gaping holes in the building’s roof, and burnt rafters throughout.
Restore Oregon also reported that the water used to fight the fire destroyed the walls and floor of the lodge’s ballroom, as well as the basement below, and the entire interior has been damaged by smoke.

The landmark building has been associated with the historic African-American community for generations.

Lodge Exalted Ruler Louis McLemore said that between maintenance, general overhead, and insurance premiums, it costs roughly $100,000 a year to keep the beloved lodge at 6 N. Tillamook Street open and operational.

Restore Oregon reported that McLemore and others are working tirelessly to save and plan for the rehabilitation of the structure, which serves as headquarters for Portland’s only remaining African American fraternal organization, but they need help from the community.

Although Billy Webb Elks Lodge has insurance coverage, it is estimated that full repairs and mitigation could take at least a year to complete.

While the lodge does collect fees from its members, the vast majority of its operating budget comes from rental of its ballroom, kitchen and bar for events, classes, meetings, and shows, all of which are impossible for the foreseeable future, officials said.

The fire hit just as the lodge was starting to bounce back from public health restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lodge first served as the African American branch of the Portland YWCA and was part of a larger historical context of “Colored Women’s Clubs” in early 20th-century Oregon, Restore Oregon said.

For a four-year period during WWII, the lodge was loaned to the United Service Organization (USO) for use as a recreation center for African American servicemen. In 1948, the building was used as an emergency shelter during the Vanport Flood disaster providing shelter to the African American community, which was disproportionately impacted.

In 1956, the Portland Branch of the NAACP established its first official headquarters in the basement of the lodge, focusing on African American community issues like the value of organized opposition, state support for education, housing accessibility, discrimination in labor unions, and displacement by urban renewal programs in inner northeast Portland.

During the 1950s and 60s the site became a meeting place for Black community groups like the Urban League of Portland and the Congress of Racial Equality. In 1959 it was sold by the YWCA to the Improved Benevolent & Protective Order of the Elks (IBPOEW) who own and occupy it today.

For many more years, Billy Webb Elks hopes to continue its legacy of uplifting the surrounding African American community through fellowship, benevolence, charity, citizenship programs, economic, and business objectives.

To contribute to the rebuilding fund, visit gofundme.com/f/historic-billy-webb-elks-lodge-devastated-by-fire/.