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Ark Lodge Building: Home of Columbia City’s Fraternal Past

In this 1937 photograph we see the east side of Rainier Avenue’s 4800 block, with the ornate Ark Lodge building occupying center stage. The Columbia Garage is to the left, where the Washington Federal Bank stands today, and the Rainier Valley Transfer Company, a furniture moving operation, is to the right of the Ark Lodge. Streetcar tracks go up the center of Rainier in the photo, but the streetcar had ceased operation on January 1st, and the tracks would soon be torn up and paved over to make the road safer for buses and cars.

The Ark Lodge Masonic Temple is part of a long history of fraternal organizations in Columbia City. Fraternal groups such as the Masons were an important part of the social fabric in many American towns in the early 20th century: the 1919 Polk Directory lists 38 different fraternal organizations in Seattle, with over 200 individual chapters. The groups varied widely in their membership and purpose. The Freemasons famously included many of the nation’s political leaders, going back to George Washington and Benjamin Franklin; local chapters often included prominent community members and businessmen. The Modern Woodmen of America (who also had a chapter in Columbia) offered mutual aid to working people, and eventually evolved into a life insurance company. Women’s groups reinforced social ties – and stratifications – while their members did charity work in the community.

The first fraternal organization we know of in Columbia was the Knights of Pythias, who built an elegant two-storey building at 4863 Rainier Avenue in 1892. (The top half burned down in 1941, but the first floor is still there, home to the new Columbia City Bakery and Pet Elegance.) In 1898 the town’s attorney, H.H.A Hastings, built a building on Ferdinand Street known as Fraternity Hall, where various community groups met. (BikeWorks is at that site now.)

In 1903, Ark Lodge #126 of the Free and Accepted Masons held its first meeting at Fraternity Hall, which was known from then on as the First Masonic Temple. The organization grew steadily. In 1905 an affiliated women’s group, the Ark Chapter #86 of the Order of the Eastern Star, was started in Columbia.

In 1921 the Masons built the beautiful Ark Lodge building pictured here. It was designed by architect J. L. McCauley, who lived in the neighborhood and designed many of the buildings in the area. The Masons met on the upper floor, and the Heater Glove factory moved in downstairs.

Freeman Heater, also a local resident, started the Heater Glove company in 1918. The factory began with one sewing machine at 4914 Rainier Avenue, in the alley behind the movie theater. The company grew quickly and eventually produced a complete line of leather gloves and helmets. Charles Lindbergh wore a Heater helmet on his trip across the Atlantic in 1927 – it is now in the Smithsonian, we hear. The company also made boxing gloves for Jack Dempsey, a personal friend of Freeman’s. In addition to providing world-famous heroes with the tools of their trades, the Heater factory was a great supplier of material for local schoolboys. Buzz Anderson, a student at Columbia School in the 1930s, remembers rummaging through the Heater garbage cans, looking for leather scraps big enough to make into slingshot pockets.

After World War Two, the Heater Glove factory moved a mile north, and for the next fifty years the Ark Lodge building served primarily as a meeting hall for Masonic groups and others. The City Directories in the 1960s list Ark Lodge #126 of the Free and Accepted Masons; their sister group, the Order of the Eastern Star; and a half-dozen other fraternal organizations in the building, including the Order of De-Molay, the Order of Rainbow Girls, and Job’s Daughters. The first floor store-front space was occupied by several businesses over the years, including Roy Bailey’s insurance office and H. & R. Block tax services. Victorious Life Christian Center held services in the building in 2000.

In 2003 the Masons finally sold the building – the small group continues to meet in Tukwila every week – and Paul Doyle transformed the Mason’s upstairs meeting rooms into our neighborhood moviehouse, the Columbia City Cinema.

One final note: you may notice that the 1937 photograph was shot from high above the street: the photographer was standing on top of a hill that no longer exists. The current site of the Bank of America, Columbia Plaza, the Farmers Market, and the Hasegawa Professional Building was once a wooded knoll with several houses on it. The hill was razed in the 1950s when the bank was built.

by Mikala Woodward