Historic Billy Webb Elks Lodge Devastated by Fire, Needs Help from Community

By Sue Stringer and Restore Oregon

Fire damage from Fire on September 11 at the Billy Webb Elks Lodge. Photo credit Restore Oregon

The following is a press release by Restore Oregon which includes the history of the Billy Webb Elks Lodge that sadly was the victim of a fire recently. The Eliot Neighborhood Association has donated funds to the Elks Lodge for restoration. We hope that others will join us in helping this organization restore the historic building that has meant so much to our neighborhood for so many generations.

In the early morning of September 11th, 2021, the Billy Webb Elks Lodge in North Portland’s Albina neighborhood suffered a devastating fire as a result of trespassers. The decking attached to the rear of the building caught fire, which in turn ignited two adjacent walls and the roof above the lodge’s ballroom. Thankfully, the fire was reported quickly enough that it was contained in time to save much of the building. Unfortunately, the blaze left gaping holes in the building’s roof, and burnt rafters throughout. Water has destroyed the walls and floor of the ballroom, as well as the basement below, and the entire interior has been damaged by smoke. 

Lodge Exalted Ruler, Louis McLemore, estimates 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. And this weekend’s debilitating fire has rendered the organization unable to use its sole asset — its historic building — to raise the money needed for its survival. McLemore and others are working tirelessly to save and plan for the rehabilitation of the heavily-damaged structure, which serves as headquarters for Portland’s only remaining African American Fraternal Organization, but they need help from the community.

How the Community Can Help:

A GoFundMe page has been established to assist the Billy Webb Elks Lodge as they recover and rebuild. Every contribution, however small, makes a difference

Funds raised through GoFundMe will assist with:

  • Securing the building post-fire
  • Making up for lost revenue
  • Operating expenses while the lodge remains unusable
  • Consultations with historic preservation experts about restoring what has been lost
  • Costs that may not be covered by insurance

Although Billy Webb Elks Lodge has insurance coverage, and SERVPRO of Portland has already visited the site to assess damage and offer assistance, 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. 

During a site visit by Restore Oregon staff earlier this week, McLemore stated in grief that “We were starting to gain so much momentum, and after a year of COVID-19 closures and planning, things were taking off…and now this devastating event has set everything back.”

Billy Webb Elks Lodge built 1921. Photo credit Architectural Resources Group

Billy Webb Elks Lodge Mission & History:

The mission of the Billy Webb Elks Lodge is “to promote Charity, Justice and Love, to our members and the community. Our building is our greatest asset. We provide space for residents, other community-based and non-profit organizations to host meetings and trainings who often provide knowledge regarding social services, mental and physical health, and financial stability. We often provide the spaces free of charge to several of these entities.”

The lodge has a long association with the historic African American community in the Albina District of Portland. It 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. 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. The IBPOEW was established in response to racial exclusivity of American fraternal societies and continues the legacy of uplifting the surrounding African American community through fellowship, benevolence, charity, citizenship programs, economic, and business objectives.

The lodge has been on Restore Oregon’s Most Endangered Places list since 2020, and our organization has been working with its leaders — Lou McLemore, Exalted Ruler and Deborah Roache, Daughter Ruler — and experts in the community since 2019 to create a plan for the lodge’s future. Recent listing in the National Register of Historic Places has opened doors for grant funding that can offset the costs of preservation and business planning, as well as staffing. Last month, the lodge was awarded a small grant by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to fund a feasibility study exploring self-sustaining uses for the property that will outline steps to optimize the building and its operations for new income-producing uses. Thus, the fire really could not have come at a worse time.