Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple

Portland, Oregon


Battle-scarred and masculine, a half-ruined shadow of its former self, botched reconstructive surgery layered onto what must have been a handsome facade, and looking both timelessly indestructible and like it might crumble any minute, the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple is the Mickey Rourke of Portland architecture.

Like Mr. Rourke, the Temple has the attractive mystique of a ruin. You hate to have the mystery explained.

Luckily the story just gets weirder.




The Ancient Order of United Workmen was founded by John J. Upchurch, on October 27, 1868, in Meadsville, Pennsylvania. Upchurch was a mechanic, a Freemason, and a little unhappy with the lack of services provided by his previous fraternal organization, the League of Friendship of the Mechanical Order of the Sun.

So he founded his own secret society.

Upchurch brought some Masonic symbolism with him, namely the all-seeing eye, the square-and-compass, and the anchor emblem. To begin with Upchurch had 13 members and one new idea. When they got 1000 members, he was going to collect $1 from every member, and pay out $500 to the rightful heirs of any member who died. If they didn't have enough in the till, they'd collect $1 from everybody until they did.

Nothing much happened until 1873. Then, for some reason, it exploded.

By 1895 the A.O.U.W. had 6000 lodges all across the country, a membership of 318,000 in the U.S. and another 32,000 in Canada, and since its formation it had paid out to the widows and orphans of members some $70,000,000 -- in 1895 dollars. That's something like $1.79 billion today. Upchurch didn't invent life insurance in America, but directly (through the AOUW) and indirectly (through the Order's imitators), he brought life insurance within reach of hundreds of thousands of people. Incidentally the Order controlled an amazing amount of money.




In 1899, six million Americans were members of 350 different secret societies, representing 40% of the adult male population of the country, with lots of women's auxiliary organizations and black and Jewish parallel organizations.

These societies broke down into broad categories:

* mutual assessment fraternities, which were elementary insurance companies. Our A.O.U.W. was the first of these. Soon came many, many, many imitators. To pull a few evocative names from a long list: the Fraternal Mystic Circle, the Native Sons of the Golden West, the Empire Knights of Relief, the Mystic Workers of the World, and the Prudent Patricians of Pompeii.

* Masonic bodies, the biggest category, for instance the American Rite, the Scottish Rite, the Rosicrucians, and other splinter groups such as the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm

* military orders and societies, like the Grand Army of the Republic, which itself had half a million members in 1890

* patriotic and political orders, for instance the Loyal Men of American Liberty, the Knights of Reciprocity, and the Order of the Little Red School House

* Greek fraternities, including lots of familiar Greek letters and the infamous Skull and Bones

* benevolent or "friendly" societies, like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Improved Order of Red Men, the International Concatenated Order of Hoo-hoo (half-ironic, Arkansas, founded 1892 during a drinking binge), the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, etc.

* mystic and theosophical societies: Brotherhood of the West Gate, the Hermetic Brothers of Luxor, and the Order of the White Shrine of Jerusalem





Judging from the buildings they left behind, these societies continued to flourish through the 1910s and the 1920s. There's indication that they worked the levers of power behind the curtain ran big parts of the country, or thought they did.

They certainly had money to invest.

The largest Masonic building in the country is in Detroit, dating from 1926, and a real skyscraper. The elaborate 1925 Elks Club in Los Angeles was known as City Hall West, because so many deals were done there and "So many politicans, judges and powerful figures haunted the opulent classrooms and halls."

In Phoenix, the relationship was even a little closer -- the old 1929 city hall WAS a Masonic lodge, the cornerstone proudly says so, and it was designed by a Masonic architect summoned all the way from Louisiana. If there was any embarrasment about blurring the distinction between the secret men's club and the local government, you'd never know it.

This isn't the only example in Portland: what is now the west building of the Governor Hotel was built as the Elks Temple, reportedly the largest Elks club in the country when constructed in 1923. The interior upstairs still features some of the Elks'...exotic preoccupations. The main Masonic Temple in Portland was terrifically expensive for 1924 and is now part of the art museum.





The founder Upchurch visited Portland in 1885, as part of a west coast tour, and was disappointed at what he found. "There was a fearful state of affairs in this Jurisdiction, especially in and around Portland.... It will take more than I am able to give to enthuse them."

The very existence of the 1892 building signals a dramatic turnaround in the local organization. Caused by what? No idea. It's only a guess to say that they needed all six of these stories for offices, records, publications, meeting rooms, self-improvement activities. Just maybe there's a ballroom-sized auditorium up there on the fifth floor behind those big arched windows. But we also know that the national AUOW conference came to Portland in June, 1902, eight hundred delegates from across the country.

The anchor in the rondel is accounted for, not by any particular nautical association, but from one of the AOUW's emblems. For better or worse, they didn't really indulge in the camels, scimitars, sphinxes, double-headed eagles, stern statues of Hammurabi, and other exotic details you might find elsewhere.

The large number of bricked-in windows and doors -- anybody's guess.

The architect was Justus (or Justice) Krumbein, who had a respectable career in Oregon, like designing the razed 1884 Kamm Block and the second Oregon State Capitol in Salem, the one that burned. The masonry contractor was one Edward Killfeather. No big clues there.

According to historical photos dating from 1981, it's been in this neglected condition for 30 years.

Mystery: unsolved.




Copyright 2009 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.