A Familiar Downtown Landmark holds Hidden Treasure
Truth be known, it wasn't really THAT many moons ago, their stomping ground was the Phil's Gift Shop building, and just to set the record straight, these were definitely NOT Native Americans!
In the early 1900's, 153-155 Washington Street was headquarters to a fraternal society, the Improved Order of Red Men. A quick check of IORM's original constitution reveals the irony - that in fact, only "white males of good moral character" were eligible to be "Red Men."
Originally they were known as "Sons of Liberty," a secret society of colonists modeled after Native American tribes, that worked in resistance to the English Crown. As the story goes, in 1773 while British ships were moored off the coast of Boston, the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Native Americans, threw the famous Boston Tea Party.
After the American Revolution the name was changed to "Order of Red Men" and membership steadily increased. By 1920 the organization had lodges in 46 states and would soon hit its peak with half a million members. Over the years its members included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and constitution notwithstanding, even Richard Nixon.
Today, although greatly reduced in size, the IORM still exists. As stated on its website, the organization "is pledged to the high ideals of Freedom, Friendship and Charity."
During the late 1800's Washington Street was lined with impressive brick buildings. On one side stood the magnificent Bennett Hotel, and across the street was a group of buildings known as the Bennett Block where a dry-goods store known as "Fowler, Dick and Walker," got its start. In 1900 the store relocated to Court Street and would eventually be known as "Fowler's."
After the move a variety of businesses occupied the building at 153-155 Washington Street. In 1909 it held a real estate office, clothing store, jeweler, and music school. It was that year that Wamsutta Tribe, no. 37 of the Improved Order of Red Men moved in, taking the entire fourth floor for its lodge.
Membership grew and within ten years the Washington Street lodge was hosting six different Red Men tribes including their women's auxiliary, the "Degree of Pocahantas, Minnehaha Council." Meetings were scheduled every night of the week, until finally in 1922, the Red Men moved out. In IORM terms, "the council fire was quenched," and the building entered its next phase.
Over the years it was home to a coffee den, barber shop, florist, and oyster bar. Finally, in 1942, Phil's Gift Shop took up residence and would remain the sole tenant for 65 years. Merchandise filled the first three floors, but on the fourth floor, the former Red Men lodge was used only for storage.
Recently Phil's Gift Shop relocated and today the building on Washington Street stands empty and for sale. Except for an "urban renewed" ground floor fašade, it looks as it did 125 years ago. Inside, rooms are filled with empty glass display cases and idle cash registers. But stepping from the staircase onto the fourth floor is taking a step back in time, where a first glance into the abandoned Red Men lodge takes your breath away.
Looking past the clutter of cardboard boxes, the room appears untouched since it was abandoned in 1922. A massive dome and skylight are overhead and a stage is located at one end of the room. Shallow balconies run down each side of the lodge where rows of "white-only" Red Men dressed in full regalia once witnessed ritual ceremonies.
Then there is the artwork. Like those they were imitating, Binghamton's Red Men left their mark on these walls. Large murals depicting wilderness scenes and Native Americans on horseback cover the plaster surfaces.
For nearly a century this secret theater and its artwork have been hidden from public view. Just outside there have been many changes - community activity flourished then shifted away from the city, buildings have come and gone, and even the street itself was removed.
Twenty years ago, in an effort to revitalize the downtown area, a retail shopping mall was built on Washington Streetů literally. Known as MetroCenter, it replaced a block-long section of the street. Unfortunately, as shoppers were increasingly drawn away from the city, MetroCenter as a retail mall would enjoy short-lived success.
As the saying goes, that was then. Now exciting things are happening downtown. New businesses, arts venues and educational centers are opening, empty buildings are being repaired and reused, students are moving downtown and loft apartments are filling with new residents.
In the center of town, the area separating Binghamton's two Washington Streets is active. No longer a retail mall, "MetroCenter is doing great," says Michael Libous, who has operated a salon in the mall for nine years. "Currently all but two spaces in the mall are occupied by businesses," he said, adding "and they're all under long term lease."
Out front the old Red Men lodge now looks over a pedestrian mall, lined on one side with fine examples of commercial Victorian Gothic architecture, and on the other side, images of those buildings reflect in the glass-front fašade of a modern business center.
Meanwhile, up on the fourth floor where the Red Men once held council, there is hidden treasure to be found. Hopefully the building will be discovered, revitalized, and once again play a significant role in the development of downtown Binghamton.
That would be a good reflection on our city.