Inside the Union Building

Before the arrival of the digital age and the virtual social institutions like Facebook and Google that accompany it, people were reliant on much more pedestrian venues for such social interaction; traditional bricks and mortar establishments with a physical presence in the communities they served. The most famous of these institutions was of course the church, but there was another. This was the fraternal organization. With names like Knights of Pythias, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Ancient Order of Hiberians, and Daughters of Rebekah, these social groups often shared similar interests and beliefs, and partook in highly traditional and ritualized events. By the late 1880’s more than a dozen of such organizations had emerged within the metropolitan confines of the Calumet region.

At first these groups met in churches or member’s homes, but as the community grew and the groups’ memberships climbed, there became a growing need for large dedicated meeting places for such groups to meet. Unfortunately the undertaking of such an expensive endeavor was far beyond the means of most of these organizations. That was until two of the largest pooled their resources to erect a communal meeting space that could be shared by all – a building that would become known as the Union Building.

In 1888 local lodges of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Free and Accepted Masons formed the Union Building Association, a corporation whose purpose was the building of a shared lodge space for use by both organizations. The board consisted of some of the region’s most influential movers and shakers, including Thomas Hoatson Jr., John Duncan, and Dr. R.H. Osborn. Financing for the building was obtained through the sale of $15,000 worth of stock, most of which was bought up by the board members themselves. That same year construction commenced on a donated piece of C&H land just at the base of 5th Street. A year later the building was complete – at a final cost of $23,000.

The three story Union Building was built as a multi-use structure, consisting of rentable retail space on the first floor and two large lodge halls on the upper two. The building’s anchor tenant was the Merchants and Miners Bank, who received an ornate corner entrance complete with the word “bank” carved across its frieze. Next door was a general clothing retailer, a space that would later become home to Calumet’s Post Office.

Looking up from those retail spaces you find two additional stories, the second belonging to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) and the third utilized by the Free and Accepted Masons. The windows seen on the front facade illuminated each hall’s complementing robing and anterooms (waiting rooms).

The lodge hall’s themselves sit in the north-east corner of the building, stacked one on top of the other. From the north facade you can make out the line of windows that illuminate each hall. The pairs in the front once again illuminate the robing rooms. The two smaller windows up along the very top of the building are for a small fourth story room used by the Mason’s as an additional locker room.

Along the south side of the building we find even more windows, but these sit alongside each hall’s accompanying reception rooms and kitchens. The large windowless area along the front end is home to the building’s main staircase, which oddly enough can only be accessed from an outside entrance.

The Union Building would continue to house lodge meetings for another 80 years before the Masons abandoned the building and sold it to a private owner, who ended up converting one of the storefronts into a private residence. For those 80 years the building remained relatively untouched, save some cosmetic alterations and renovations. But after being sold to private interests the building suffered from a lack of maintenance and upkeep, resulting in a compromised roof which decimated the Mason’s third floor meeting hall and quickly threatened the rest of the building.

Thankfully the National Park service bought the property in 1995, and began work on rectifying the roof issues and rehabilitating the rest of the building. Over 15 years and some 6 million dollars later, the building has been returned to all its former glory in preparation for its new role as the KNHP’s Calumet visitors center – whose grand opening is October 27. The new visitor center will include several exhibits and informational displays providing an overview of life in and around Calumet, as well as the role the building and its fraternal landlords played in the area’s history.

Before those exhibits were installed I was fortunate enough to be given an exclusive tour of the old building’s newly rehabilitated self – thanks to the Keweenaw National Historic Park and archivist Jeremiah Mason who was generous enough with his time to give me a tour. In such a renovated and open condition the grand old building provides quite an interesting glimpse into Calumet’s more lively past – a glimpse we’ll share starting tomorrow….

The Grand Opening of the Keweenaw National Historical Park’s new Calumet Visitor Center – housed within the newly renovated Union Building – will be held on Thursday October 27th with a ribbon cutting ceremony at 10am. In addition to the visitor center itself, the building will be home to several interactive exhibits about life and work in the great metropolis of Red Jacket. The building will be open to the public between 9am and 5pm, and there is no cost for admission.

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  1. Hello Copper Country Explorer! For my graduate degree in historic preservation I wrote my thesis, a Historic Structure Report, on the Union Building for the National Park Service. The building was in the deteriorated shape then – 1999 – complete with the compromised roof. I am so excited to see the photographs of the exterior with the building restored and am looking forward to seeing the interior photographs. Thank you for highlighting this great building. Karla K.

  2. Jeremiah! What a guy! He too gave me a tour of the building, but it was still under construction when I got to go poking around. Very excited to head up there on the 26th though, and see it in all it’s finished and restored glory. :D

  3. Thanks for featuring the Union Building, Mike! Park staff and exhibit contractors are feverishly working to take care of all the last minute details to be ready for the Grand Opening next week. It’s really going to be a spectacular exhibit – and I’m glad that you’re featuring the building, which is pretty special on its own. (BTW, Ashley, I still need a tally of your volunteer hours for us. . . . .)

  4. Karla… Honored to have someone who wrote the book on the Union Building drop by and give me some kudos, glad you’re enjoying.

    BTW I think I’ve read your report, if it’s the same one that’s available for download from the KNHP website (or at the very least I think that report used your report for its information). You’re the one that did all the hard work, I just happened to be there to take some pictures…

    Jeremiah… Thank you for the tour! Without that I couldn’t even have featured this beautiful building.

  5. Hi Mike. I have been following your more recent posts and the interior looks so awesome! The report I wrote is cited in Stephanie Atwood’s “Historic Use of the Interior Space of the Union Building”. Thanks again!

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