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Westmoreland Masonic building for sale, but Lodge to continue

by: Eileen G. Fitzsimons, The future is uncertain for members of the Sellwood Masonic Lodge, whose 1930 building on Milwaukie Avenue in Westmoreland has been offered for sale since late 2007.

The high maintenance and heating costs of their 77-year old building, coupled with a diminished membership, has impelled the Sellwood Masonic lodge to sell their Westmoreland building at S.E. Milwaukie and Ogden Streets. However, according to lodge officers the group is not disbanding.

For the present, they will continue to meet in their building, and if the sale is successful, relocate or build a more suitable lodge. They also hope to increase their membership, which at one time was four times its current level of one hundred Masons. If the building sells for its $1.95 million asking price, options include renting meeting space from another lodge, purchasing a smaller, more efficient building, or constructing a new one, preferably in the area.

According to Lodge Master Doug Barlow, the group has had several offers, but so far have not found a buyer with whom the members feel comfortable. He did not say what they will do if they are unable to sell the building.

The Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, Sellwood Lodge #131, is the oldest fraternal organization in the neighborhood. It's just shy of the century mark, having seated its first officers in February of 1908. Many of its initial members were also leaders in early Sellwood; its first Lodge Master was Peter Hume, who in 1907 built and was President of the Bank of Sellwood at S.E. 13th and Umatilla Streets. It was in his bank that the possibility of organizing a Masonic lodge was first discussed on August 17, 1907.

According to a back issue of THE BEE, once formed, the Sellwood Masons met in a room over the cabinet and carpenter shop of W.H. Kilbuck, just off S.E. 13th and Spokane Streets. Later, they shared space with another long-time fraternal organization, the City View Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.), in a building owned by local butcher Carl Mordhurst. Finally, in 1929, the Sellwood Masonic membership and funds had increased to the extent that a new purpose-built lodge was feasible.

Portland architect Francis M. Stokes prepared plans for the three-story, brick-faced, 13,000 square foot structure. Amenities included a dining room and kitchen in the basement; a ballroom with stage, punch room, dressing and coat rooms on the ground floor, and on the third floor The Blue Lodge room, with several smaller spaces listed for ladies and mens locker rooms, as well as for 'property, candidates, examination and Tyler.'

In a bit of historic serendipity, architect Stokes was the third generation of his family to be involved in the brick manufacturing business, while Freemasonry itself had its origins in the English stone mason guilds of the late 1600's.

It may be an indication of the ongoing rivalry between 'old' Sellwood and 'modern' Westmoreland that the opening of the lodge on Saturday, September 6, 1930, merited paltry coverage in THE BEE of that era. The paper allocated only a tiny paragraph on its front page to the achievement of the lodge members.

This may have been due to the loyalty of the paper's then-editor to the Sellwood part of the neighborhood, where the paper was based, or perhaps a perceived lack of paid advertising in THE BEE by Westmoreland businesses. A further source of irritation was that although it was the 'Sellwood' lodge, the new building was not there, but in Westmoreland.

The coverage by THE BEE consisted of a desultory recounting of speakers and the program. In contrast, a description in that issue of the Hepp family's new racket store in North Portland (it had moved from Sellwood) merited three times the column space granted the new Masonic Temple.

If the lodge did anything to counteract the snub, it was not reported in THE BEE. For instance, there is no indication that the handsome new structure was open for the general public to tour and admire. The dedication was a members-only event, culminating in a dance in the ballroom. However, other local organizations did begin to utilize the lodge, perhaps paying a rental fee. One of the first non-Masonic users of the space was the Westmoreland Community Club, which met in the building to plan a 'pre-college dance' - then closed the evening with card games.

In spite of this petty behavior, and despite the lodge having opened at the beginning of the Great Depression, its membership reportedly rose to several hundred. Doubtless many were men from the neighborhood who could easily walk or catch the streetcar to meetings at their new headquarters.

But, as economic conditions did not improve for a decade, it must have been difficult for some of the Masons to produce the annual membership fee. In fact, records indicate that numbers did dip in the years before WWII. But the lodge was the part of the cultural glue that held people together in the neighborhood, at least into the mid-1960's, when it had between 300-500 members.

In spite of its private (sometimes mislabeled 'secret') nature, the requirements for membership are few. A man has to acknowledge a belief in a Supreme Being, be of good character, be committed to self-improvement, and participate in charitable works of his choice (either by donating money or volunteering).

The lodge is fraternal and secular, its purpose to encourage friendships among members, and to develop character leadership abilities. Although they may move away, long time Masons are often very attached to their original lodge, and maintain that membership while also joining one in their new community. Multiple lodges may also share a lodge building: The Willamette Lodge has held their monthly meetings at Sellwood for a number of years.

While the future of the Sellwood Masonic lodge building is unknown, Master Doug Barlow remains optimistic. He reports that younger men have recently joined, bringing new energy and enthusiasm to leadership positions, a trend he hopes will continue. He stated that as the modern workplace becomes more technical and impersonal, he sees the Masonic Lodge as a place for men to interact and learn to discuss issues of mutual interest in an open-minded manner.

For the time being, at least until it is sold, members of both the Sellwood and Willamette lodges will continue to hold their monthly meetings in the familiar building on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue, across from the Meyer Boys and Girls Club.