Organizations of men using the title Odd Fellows apparently emerged in England as early as the 1500s. There were guilds which were organizations of skilled trade workers. I infer that they performed some of the functions we associate with unions and with fraternal organization. And then organizations emerged that had loose membership rules and were willing to accept men who were not craftsmen; men from a variety of social class backgrounds. Apparently, the name Oddfellows was widely used for such groups in England by the 1700s, although the origin of this unusual name is not known with certainty. It may be that many men in England in the late Middle Ages identified with their trade, their land holdings or their status as nobility. Perhaps Odd fellow referred to men who could not identify with one of those indicia of status.
In April, 1819—for the first time in the United States—an Independent Order of Oddfellows was chartered in Baltimore. The name Oddfellows was used to indicate their affinity with the Oddfellows groups then popular in Great Britain. But Independent was added to the title to show that the group in the United States was not controlled by the British organization.
As cities in the United States grew in the early industrial age following the Civil War, fraternal orders emerged and then flourished. Many of them erected large buildings or clubhouses where men could meet, exchange ideas, enjoy fellowship and, from time to time, promote the social good with charitable projects. The International Order of Oddfellows was one such organization with numerous chapters throughout the United States. Social values have changed. It must have been common in late Nineteenth Century cities for white-collar men and skilled craftsmen to come home from work, spend some time with their families, but then spend one or more evenings during the week socializing with other men in halls such as the one pictured above.
Membership in men’s fraternal organizations plummeted during the Depression decade. They typically charged substantial fees to join, annual dues and then imposed fees for the use of their hall and for the food and drink consumed there. In addition, members were expected to contribute to charitable causes. Many men lacked the means to continue as members during the 1930s. During the early 1940s, the full employment generated by the defense industry in Detroit with its numerous hours of overtime meant that few men had time for socializing at fraternal organizations. And then social mores changed after World War II. The Baby Boom occurred; new ideas about childrearing became popular, calling for men to be much involved with their families. The norms changed and men were expected to spend some of their evening and week-end hours with their families. Television motived men to stay at home watching sports or drama rather than going to a lodge hall to hoist glasses of beverage with other men. Fraternal organizations have certainly not disappeared in the United States but they do not function as they did a century ago, nor do they enroll as many members. One of the largest underutilized buildings in Detroit is the gigantic and strikingly impressive Masonic Hall at Cass Park in downtown.
I am not sure when the Oddfellows ceased using the attractive building pictured above. It was purchased in the 1990s by the Southwest Detroit Business Association. That organization wished to renovate the structure and use it as an anchor for a lively business district centered at the intersection of West Vernor Highway and Lawndale. Using a variety of tax credits and grants as well as funding from the Cool Cities Initiative that was strongly supported by Governor Granholm, they remodeled this building and it now provides commercial office space as the street level as well as a home for cultural organizations. I believe the Southwest Detroit Business Association purchased the old structure for $80,000 but eventually spent $1.3 million on the renovation.
West Vernor Highway from the Fisher Freeway to Woodlawn Cemetery is a rather active business strip. This is due, in part, to the growth of Hispanic population in this neighborhood from the 1970s through the 1990s. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans came to Detroit to work in defense plants in World War I, but many of them were apparently rather forcefully removed after that conflict. Again in World War II, Hispanics came to Detroit to take jobs. Many apparently returned to their homes in Texas or Mexico after the war thinking that returning veterans would fill the Detroit jobs although some stayed. Census 1980 counted 28,000 Hispanics in Detroit. This increased to 49,000 in 2000 with many of them living in that section of southwest Detroit whose main thoroughfare is West Vernor Highway.
The era of growth for the Hispanic population in the Motor Cities appears to be over. Compared to almost all other large cities, Detroit was unique for its slow rate of Hispanic population growth in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century. The population count in 2010 was once again 49,000, revealing no growth in the decade. Nevertheless, the city’s Hispanic population remained more or less constant while the white population declined by 44 percent and the African-American by 23 percent. I do not know if the Southwest Detroit Business Association, similar organizations and the city’s government are actively promoting immigration to southwest Detroit. Clearly, many businesses in this area who owe their success, in part, to the efforts of the Southwest Detroit Business Association would benefit from more rapid population growth in this area.
The structure you see is not the only Odd Fellows building currently standing in an historic district in the city. There is another. This is the 1874 Victorian structure at the corner of Monroe and Randolph in downtown Detroit that is within the Randolph Street Commercial Buildings Historic District.
Architect: Fred Swirsky
Date of Construction: 1917
Date of rehabilitation: 2004
Architect for rehabilitation: Elisabeth Knibbe
Website for the Southwest Detroit Business Association: http://www.southwestdetroit.com/
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: This building is within the West Vernor Lawndale
Historic District, #02001501 Listed: December 12, 2002
Photograph: Ren Farley:
Description prepared: April, 2012
Return to Associations and Clubs
Return to Homepage