For more than two decades, Coeur d’Alene’s old Elks Club was a downtown eyesore.
Broken windows and peeling green trim characterized the historic building, which had once symbolized the aspirations of North Idaho’s early business professionals.
But Nick Smoot admired the “good bones” of the rectangular brick structure at 418 E. Lakeside Ave. Last year, he and two partners bought the long-vacant building with plans to return it to productive use.
After $1.2 million in renovations, the partners are nearing their goal. They’re anticipating an early June opening for the building they’ve renamed the “Innovation Den.”
The three-level building will house a coffee shop and office space designed for start-up companies. In a nod to the building’s history, the partners are restoring the original bar in the basement, which will become part of a private club with its own cigar room.
“It’s such an iconic building. Everyone had ideas about it, but it sat empty for 27 years,” Smoot said.
At 34,000 square feet, “it was a lot of space. It was hard to make it pencil out,” he said.
The original Elks Temple dates to 1907, and was expanded in 1939, according to the Museum of North Idaho’s records. Old photographs show a lavish interior, with ornate light fixtures and flowered carpets and wall paper.
“It looked like the Davenport Hotel,” Smoot said.
Now, the interior has industrial decor, with exposed brick walls and new red fir flooring scuffed to look old. None of the original wood paneling remained when Smoot and partners Rich Thrasher and Cody Peterson bought the building.
“Basically, it’s a brand new building inside an old shell,” Smoot said.
Though a previous owner gutted the interior, a few surprises remained. Contractors discovered an unopened bottle of Hiram Walker and Sons whiskey from the 1940s, a skeleton key and an armless mannequin.
During the club’s heyday, the Elks had about 2,000 members. The lodge was the gathering spot for local businessmen, who made deals over drinks at the bar, and waltzed and foxtrotted with their wives across the club’s ballroom.
“All the downtown businessmen – the mayor, the lawyers, the doctors – were members,” said Pat Braden, 74. “I was initiated as an Elk in that building when I was 21.”
But, “I’ve been in and out of that building since I was 10 or 12,” said Braden, now the exalted ruler of the Elks Lodge No. 1254, which eventually relocated to Prairie Avenue.
Braden’s first job was washing dishes at Hudson’s Hamburgers in downtown Coeur d’Alene. He’d duck into the Elks building when he needed to find his dad, who was the lodge’s exalted ruler at the time.
The lodge’s downstairs bar had four championship pool tables and a snooker table. The ballroom was on the main floor, along with another bar and the lodge rooms. Offices were upstairs.
Woody McEvers, one of Coeur d’Alene’s city council members, got a job bartending at the Elks in 1977 when he moved to Coeur d’Alene.
He worked a 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, serving 80-cent highballs to Elks Club members.
“It was whiskey and a mixer, or coke and rum served in small, narrow glasses,” McEvers said. “There were no foo-foo drinks.”
The clientele included retired tug boat captains, who had ferried logs down the St. Joe River to sawmills on Lake Coeur d’Alene. McEvers was fascinated by the stories they told.
“I was the new guy, all ears,” McEvers said. “I got my history of Coeur d’Alene listening to them talk.”
During the 1980s, an athletic club leased space in the building, dividing the ballroom into four racquet ball courts. The Elks moved out of the building in the mid-1990s and sold it to an investor.
“It’s really great to see something happening with the building after it sat vacant for so many years,” said Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer.
He’s also excited about the potential for local job creation from the renovation. The building will house shared co-work space, plus 48 single offices and five larger office suites.
The business incubator idea has been successful in other Idaho cities, such as Boise and Meridian, said Gynii Abracosa Gilliam, the Coeur d’Alene Area Economic Development Corp.’s president.
For start-up companies, the proximity to other entrepreneurs is often helpful, she said. It creates an environment where business owners can exchange ideas and learn from each other. Sharing resources, such as a printer and meeting rooms, also keeps overhead costs down, she said.
Smoot said he has 30 tenants lined up for the office space, which he envisions becoming a creative hub for small tech companies.
The building also will provide community space on the weekends, when people can rent out part of the first floor for events.
Smoot, a Coeur d’Alene High School graduate, worked in the tech industry in Los Angeles and Philadelphia before returning to North Idaho. He said he designed mobile apps for the real estate and online education industries, and one related to networking for business professionals. He’s the founder of Innovation Collective, which provides leadership training.
“This is a lot more than a commercial project for us,” Smoot said.
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