Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Odd Fellows fire a profound loss

Hall rich in history, memories

By Tom O'Neill,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Ashes to ashes, Grant to grant.

        When a party was held nearly a century and a half ago to honorCivil War hero Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Odd Fellows Hall, the graffiti of Confederate soldiers held prisoner there were still fresh on the second-floor walls.

        When a reception was held last year to celebrate the next historic grant: a $550,000 Renaissance Kentucky downtown redevelopment grant, the graffiti were still there.

        Tuesday, the embers of the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall and its historic scribblings fell to the ground, leaving nothing but the shell and memories of a grand history.

        Residents, preservationists and the Odd Fellows Hall's new owners watched as firefighters worked in vain Tuesday morning to save the 146-year-old brick landmark at the corner of Fifth and Madison.

        The Odd Fellows Hall, named for the civic group that held meetings there until 1923 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places 50 years later, was reduced to its front facade, back wall, and a three-story column of smoke and charred debris.

        A 1 1/2-inch-thick grant application at city hall revealed the history behind a building that was home to — among other uses — Civil War prisoner holding cells, public meetings, theatrical productions, vaudeville shows, restaurants, pubs, Chinese laundry shops, and the first subscription library in Covington.

        In the 1950s, a roller skating rink filled the second-floor ballroom, famous for its 25-foot-high ceiling suspended by a truss system.

        The unusual design, which was to be restored, made it possible to have an open upper floor with no support pillars in the middle.

        It also fueled speculation that famed suspension bridge designer John A. Roebling had a hand in the construction. He was in Cincinnati in 1856 and was close with Covington banker and philanthropist Amos Shrinkle, who was then grand master of the Kentucky Grand Lodge of Odd Fellows.

        In 1900, the body of the only Kentucky governor ever assassinated while in office, Gov. William Goebel, lay in state there. About 10,000 people attended.

        Of the dozens of letters included in the grant application, only one is hand-written.

        In crisp, flowing script, Kay Senter of Newport went back in time.

        “When I was a teenager I spent many happy hours at the roller rink on the second floor. The rink was heated with a potbelly stove and dust was everywhere. However, that didn't matter, we still enjoyed ourselves. It cost 55 cents to skate if you had your own skates. I got 50 cents a day for bus fare and lunch money at Holmes High.”

        Her older brother, Owen “Bob” McCoy, was a floor-guard at the rink. Mrs. Senter, now 68, suggested new owners Tony Milburn and the husband-wife team of Damian and Kelly Sells put up old photos to commemorate its rich history.

        Reached at home Tuesday afternoon, Mrs. Senter recalled her letter — and memories — with a hearty laugh.

        “It was good memories, a part of my life,” she said. “When they said they were taking it over, I thought it would be a good idea to put up some old pictures of the old-timers who used to roller skate.”

        “Tell the history.”

        Her laughter faded when she fast-forwarded from the '50s to Tuesday morning.

        “I was in tears,” she said, “when I heard it on the news.”

        Mr. Milburn rushed to the fire after his priest called him at 6:10 a.m. and said the hall was on fire.

        “We worked too hard to just bring in a wrecking crew,” Mr. Milburn said. “We are going to talk about salvaging the exterior walls. The city has already called in a structural engineer.”

        “Amazing,” said Bill Vickers, a Covington resident all of his 62 years, from behind yellow police tape that cordoned off Madison.

        He used to work at the old Madison Liquors on the first floor, which for 30 years before that was the Sam Cover drug store. He shook his head as water from firefighters' hoses disappeared in the circling smoke.

        “That was my old stomping grounds.”

        Nearby, Covington Director of Economic Development Ella Frye curled her left hand around a cup of coffee near the Salvation Army comfort truck and tried to put the building into perspective.

        “I climbed those stairs so many times, it was a significant structure, awesome,” she said. “When we embarked on this project, we got letters from all over the country.”


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