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About Utah: Hall just seems oddly unloved

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 17 2010 11:16 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The fate of Odd Fellows Hall is on the line today — again.

This is the building that will not die. It is situated on Market Street in downtown Salt Lake City, just a few steps west of Main Street, where somehow, someway, it has lasted ever since a craftsman whose name is lost to history etched the numbers "1891" just above the 3rd story portico.

For 119 years, then, Odd Fellows Hall — the original headquarters of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows — has stood the tests of time, change and more time. The building is older than the state.

And today might be your last chance to buy it.

The current owner, namely the United States government, has no more use for it than it has for, say, the nuclear waste business and has put the building up for public auction.

The bidding opened at $500,000 and as of press time Tuesday night, the high bid was $570,000. At 1 p.m. today a 24-hour "survival period" will begin. If the high bid survives, by 1 p.m. Thursday the old hall will have a new owner. (To see where the bidding stands instantaneously, check it out online at www.auctionrp.com.)

The price range of well below $1 million is decidedly on the low side, considering the government just paid $7 million to move the building, which weighs 5 million pounds, across Market Street. And it's estimated it will take almost that much again to bring the building up to code.

And you thought you were upside-down in your last house.

The government acquired the property several years ago when plans were drawn up to expand the Frank E. Moss United States Courthouse.

The Odd Fellows building was smack in the middle of the plans.

They might have bulldozed it like the rest of the buildings on the block, but the hall made it onto the National Register of Historic Places.

With fierce backing by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, it became the spotted owl of the courthouse expansion project.

An impasse was averted with the decision to move the building across Market Street.

Anyway, here's what you get:

Three stories plus a basement; genuine Richardsonian Romanesque architecture; etchings on the front-story windows of what look to be Egyptian priestesses; and an all-seeing eye on the front of the building that was carved there in the beginning to remind members that, as Odd Fellows, they had taken a pledge of secrecy.

For some reason, there are no windows at all on the west side (used to be east side) of the building. I thought that might be due to the secret rituals the Odd Fellows didn't want anyone seeing, but Robert Shelton disabused me of that idea.

"There used to be windows," he said. "I don't know what happened to them."

Shelton is grand secretary for the grand Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge of Utah — the head Odd Fellow in a state where the membership is currently about 60, dispersed in seven lodges from Milford to Tremonton.

Then, as now, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows fraternal organization is dedicated to "visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphans."

Shelton, 69, says that in 1965 he was the last Odd Fellow to be initiated in the Salt Lake Odd Fellows Hall, just before it was sold in 1966.

"I begged them not to sell it, and I cried when they did," he says. "It sold for $80,000."

That wasn't much more than the $50,000 it cost to build it in 1891.

The reason the Odd Fellows sold the building after 75 years, says Shelton, is the members were also reaching 75.

"Most of the members were 70 or over, and they didn't want to deal with it any more," he says.

If he had his wish, the Odd Fellows would buy it back.

"I think we could raise the $500,000," he says. "It's the $6 million to refurbish it where we're not even close."

That seems to be the U.S. government's position as well. Its loss is someone else's gain. Like the Odd Fellows who gave it away for a song 44 years ago, the government doesn't want to deal with it any more.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.

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