- Historical Background
San Pablo Lodge #43, of the Independent Order of Oddfellows, was founded in 1855 and is one of the oldest organizations in Vallejo. The Lodge’s fortunes have always been closely intertwined with those of our home town. The one-two punch of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard closure, followed by the Great Recession/Vallejo Bankruptcy, left us reeling. The resulting backlog of deferred maintenance and building code upgrades of the past 25 years now puts us at risk of losing our building, just as Vallejo is entering a new era of prosperity.
When Vallejo thrived we thrived. We built the San Pablo Hall at 342 Georgia Street in 1872. A second Oddfellows lodge, Golden State #216, was instituted in 1873. Their lodge hall was built at 436 Georgia Street in 1912. In 1911, San Pablo Lodge #43 built the historic Empress Theatre, which is now a vibrant entertainment venue after being fully restored.
The post WWII era saw a steady drop in Oddfellow membership nationwide. Lodge #216 was consolidated with #43 in 1977. We remained active and solvent, and had $300k in liquid assets when a confluence of hardships hit in the 1990s.
The statewide reaction to the Loma Prieta ‘quake of 1989 was to mandate seismic retrofits to unreinforced masonry structures. Our retrofit was originally bid at $200k, but after a series of contractors quit before project completion, the cost ballooned to $500k. Our once financially secure lodge mortgaged the building for $300k to pay for the work. We’ve been broke ever since.
The traditional IOOF business model was to build a lodge hall in the center of a thriving town and rent out retail space on the ground floor for income. The closure of the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in the mid ‘90s coincided with our seismic retrofit fiasco. With a 50% retail vacancy in the downtown, the lodge members watched in dismay as their last savings were slowly bled away. The end was in sight. We transferred our mortgage from a traditional bank to the Grand Lodge of California, thinking that if the building was foreclosed it would at least remain Oddfellow property. Finally, lodge member Joe Blainey rented the ground floor for his pawn shop and stopped the bleeding for a few years. Donations from other lodges helped us stay afloat as well.
Brother Blainey moved his shop across the street in 2011, and our retail space went vacant for over two years. Once again our savings crumbled, and loss of the building seemed imminent.
Desperation Leads to Bad Decisions
One of the lodge’s tenants was Sprint PCS, which rented part of the roof and a small office space for wireless cellular antennas for $750/mo. In April 2009, when downtown Vallejo was still very depressed, the lodge received a letter from wireless company Unison, offering to “Convert your lease into cash!”, “Secure your asset”, and “Receive substantial tax savings”. That July, the lodge’s officers, all over age 70 at the time, signed an easement agreement, in perpetuity, for the lump sum of $53,543, or about five years of rent! They were genuinely surprised five years later to discover that we would get nothing more from Unison. They had not had the documents reviewed by an attorney, nor looked up the word “perpetuity” in the dictionary. The Grand Lodge of California, as our mortgage holder, also failed their due diligence and signed off on the easement agreement without asking any questions. Other lodges with rooftop cellular equipment rentals currently receive between $2000 to $4000 per month in rent. We get zero. Without that easement our rental income would be roughly double what it is now.
Ghost Ship Fallout
We were on the brink of disaster in 2013, until new lodge members started thinking creatively about ways to raise funds. They held benefit dance parties in our meeting hall and opened an arts collective in our vacant storefront, saving the building from foreclosure and helping to inspire downtown Vallejo’s renaissance as an art center. Things seemed to be on an upswing, and we were beginning to address the many deferred maintenance issues the building had suffered while we were in survival mode. Then the Oakland Ghost Ship Tragedy occurred in 2016, and triggered the current financial crisis for the lodge.
The Vallejo Fire Department began strictly enforcing code issues it had ignored for decades. The occupancy rate of the building has been curtailed until expensive upgrades and renovations can take place, so we can no longer hold big fundraising dances and dinners, nor rent the lodge out for big events.
Strategies for Survival
Vallejo is now entering a new era of prosperity, and Oddfellows membership in California is on the rise. It would be a shame for the decades-long struggle to keep our historic building to fail, right on the cusp of downtown Vallejo’s rejuvenation. Once these latest setbacks are cleared we be will in a good position to once again prosper and serve the community in the heart of Vallejo’s downtown.
Many people will ask, “Why don’t you just sell the building?”. This has several drawbacks, besides the fact that once we sell this piece of history we’ll never get it back. We can’t know the building’s value without spending a couple thousand on an appraisal, but we do know that the cellular easement and the repairs we’re struggling to fund will reduce the selling price, if we find a buyer. We may not be able to purchase another building with income potential, and certainly nothing in a prime downtown location. With Vallejo poised to flourish once again, it makes sense to at least wait for the market to improve before considering selling. Imagine how we’ll feel if we sell the building, Vallejo booms, and some wealthy investor with no roots in the downtown “flips” the building for millions of dollars five years later!
We are very involved with the downtown community and would like to stay put. While the cost of addressing the fire code upgrades and deferred maintenance is daunting, the work does not need to be done all at once. We can make do by taping the windows, walking up the stairs, and going without a dining hall. We will still enjoy our beautiful meeting hall and our place in the community. We don’t want to make another bad decision tainted by financial panic.
The San Pablo Hall at 342 Georgia Street in the heart of Vallejo’s downtown was built in 1872, with an addition to the rear in 1902, and a third and fourth floor addition and remodel in 1922 by local architect William A. Jones.
Significant modernizations and upgrades occurred in the 50’s and ’70s, and a major seismic retrofit was completed in the early ‘90s.
The building is huge, and like Vallejo, has a lot of potential. It has a 4000+ square ft. retail space on the ground floor and two commercial office rentals in the back annex. The main lodge has a two-story high grand ballroom, a dining hall and a commercial-sized kitchen. Once we can comply with the new fire code mandates it will be a great space for community events and short-term rentals such as weddings, dances and private parties. With additional upgrades there could be a second retail space on the ground floor at the rear of the building, and the kitchen could be rented out to small food producers once it is upgraded to commercial code compliance.
Historic features include eight 4′ x 10′ stained glass windows with a different Oddfellow symbol on each one, and a two-story high grand ballroom with a balcony and ornate Victorian plasterwork on the ceiling.
Our listing as a historic Vallejo site can be viewed here (pdf).
Current Financial Status.
Our retail and office spaces are all rented out to reliable tenants. We have enough income to meet our routine expenses, but zero savings. We need funds for big restoration and code upgrade projects.
What We Do Now
We’re limited to a 49 person occupancy without paying VFD for sparingly issued waivers, and our elevator is unreliable, but we still try to fulfill the Oddfellows’ mission by helping our community as much as possible. We have donated space for small gatherings like a memorial service for a neighbor’s son, to groups like the non profit theater, On the Fringe, which provides acting opportunities to youth at no charge, and meeting space to community groups like Vallejo Arts Alliance and Poetry by the Bay. We host a weekly donation-based Yoga/Pilates class where no one is turned away for lack of funds, and we rent space at low cost to a local Tai Chi group, and the Stand Down Veterans organization.
The lodge building is in the heart of Vallejo’s downtown historic district and in walking distance to the waterfront. We currently turn down many requests for event rentals that exceed 49 people or require an elevator or dining hall. We could be a vibrant center for both low-cost community and revenue generating events. We would also like to donate both time and money to worthy nonprofits and causes, once we become financially solvent.
We’re not sitting back and waiting for donations. Here are some of the things we’ve got planned:
- The new ground floor tenant has offered to let the lodge use their space for a monthly fundraising event. Some of these may be in partnership with groups such as the Humane Society and Vallejo Together.
- Halloween Haunted Lodge tours.
- Research the building’s historical status and find out if we qualify for historic preservation grant money.
- Research the possibility of forming a 501(c)(3) Friends of San Pablo Hall to facilitate tax deductible donations that our 501(c)(8) status doesn’t qualify for.
- New roof*
- Boiler refurbished (we have heat!)
- Replaced aging water heater
- Additional battery backup emergency lighting and exit signage†
- Additional fire extinguishers†
- Fire hose system refurbished†*
- $175,000 debt owed to Grand Lodge of California (remainder of seismic retrofit loan) has been forgiven!
- Make front and rear (2nd floor) staircases fire-code compliant, with smoke seals and fire rated doors. This will restore our 2nd floor meeting hall occupancy to 200 up from the current restriction of 49. Estimated cost: $4500.
What We Need
- Smoke alarm system – so far we have one bid for $70,000†.
- Rear stair exit from 4th floor – solution to be determined†. Maybe a $100,000 external staircase … we’re weighing options.
- Elevator modernization 150,000 – $200,000
Less urgent future needs
Stained glass window preservation for eight windows. The windows on the south side are in worse shape and need to be done first, estimated at $15,000 – $20,000 per window.
- Interior paint – we’d love to upgrade the meeting hall from that awful green!
- Smoke hood in kitchen –
(after elevator and 4th floor exit issues are addressed) †.
- ADA bathrooms, along with plumbing upgrades – replace galvanized steel pipe with copper, and cast iron drains with ABS.
* with help from other lodges
† fire code compliance
How to Help
You don’t have to be a lodge member to get involved and help with PR and Fundraising projects. Email us at if you’d like to lend a hand