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Our Rich History: In 1894 the new Odd Fellows Temple in Cincinnati was a grand building

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

In 1894, 125 years ago, Cincinnatians and Northern Kentuckians really knew how to celebrate. In mid-May, the Cincinnati Post reported that 20,000 visitors were in the city for the dedication of the new seven-story (plus an attic story), $300,000 Odd Fellows Temple on the northwest corner of Seventh and Elm Streets in Cincinnati.

Who are the Odd Fellows? The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) are a non-profit charitable association, with roots in England. In the United States, their first official lodge was established in 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Odd Fellows Temple, shown here circa 1910, northwest corner of Seventh and Elm Streets, Cincinnati, Ohio. Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.

Workingmen in the United States faced many obstacles in the United States in the 1800s. Should they suffer an accident, become disabled, or die, their families faced economic uncertainties and hardships. There were no such programs as Social Security, Aid to Dependent Children, Workmen’s Compensation, Medicare, or Medicaid.

The Odd Fellows provided their members a security net, including sick benefits, widows’ and orphans’ benefits, and burial insurance. For example, by 1894, the state of Ohio had 64,997 IOOF male members in 712 lodges, as well as 22,140 female members in 299 Rebekah lodges. The prior year, the Ohio IOOF lodges provided “financial relief” to 6,708 members and 851 widows, paid sick benefits to 49,165 members, and offered $30,741 for burials (“Great Crowds of Oddfellows Throng the Streets,” Cincinnati Post, 15 May 1894, p. 1).

The Odd Fellows became the first major fraternal organization in the United States to open its membership to women. Schuyler Colfax (1823-1885), an IOOF member, drafted the resolution establishing the Daughters of Rebekah, the women’s branch of the IOOF in 1851. Later, Colfax served as a U.S. Representative for Indiana (1855-1869), and gained a national reputation as a founder of the Republican Party, an opponent of slavery, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (1863-1869) and Vice President of the United States during Grant’s first term (1869-1873).

The Cincinnati Odd Fellows Temple was an immense building. Officially dedicated on Tuesday, May 15, 1894, its inauguration was celebrated in grand style. An afternoon parade, featuring seven divisions and six bands, marched in procession from Fifteenth and Race Streets to Seventh and Elm. There, crowds toured the new building. In the evening, a lengthy program with multiple addresses and musical numbers, entertained the attendees in the IOOF’s new auditorium.

Shillito’s new parking garage, seen here circa the late 1940s, northwest corner of Seventh and Elm Streets, was built on the site of the Odd Fellows Temple. Courtesy of Towne Properties.

The evening ceremonies included the building of an altar, as described by a Cincinnati Post reporter:

“The Herald of the North went out and returned with a white stone, carried by two masons. The white denoted purity, as was the foundation upon which the altar was built. The Herald of the South placed the pink stone of friendship upon the base, and the Herald of the East brought the blue stone of love for the next course in the building of the altar. The Herald of the West located the scarlet stone of truth.

Then the encampment took his turn, placing the green stone of faith, yellow stone of hope, and purple stone of charity. All of this constituted the mystic seven of the order” (“The Altar Built and the New Temple was Dedicated,” Cincinnati Post, 16 May 1894, p. 1).

The new IOOF temple stood on the grounds of the old Burnet estate. The construction of the new building, designed by Samuel Hannaford and Sons, architects, took three years. Like many fraternal halls of its day, the temple rented space to shops on the first floor, and offices on some of the upper floors, thereby earning money for the organization. One of the office tenants was the Cincinnati Southern Railroad.

The Odd Fellows Temple fell to the wrecker’s ball in 1942, becoming a parking lot. In November 1946, Shillito’s department store opened a new 1,100-car parking garage on the site. (See this NKyTribune history column.)

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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  1. Victor Canfield says:

    Great story

  2. Betty Ann SMiddy says:

    Samuel Hannaford was an member of the Odd Fellows, his only fraternal organization.

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