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Everyone sees the sign: B.P.O.E. emblazoned on the 4th Street side of the Elks building at 375 Bennett Avenue, Cripple Creek. But they are practically by the entrance before they realize it. That’s because, the entrance is a double door that opens onto a staircase. The first floor is occupied by Nana’s Nook on the corner and an empty retail space that was the Newport Saloon and the sight of the famous shooting of millionaire mine owner Sam Strong on August 22, 1901.
The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks is an old and wonderful organization that provides many groups with necessary elements that enhance the lives of children. The Order has about 450 members who uphold time-honored values of community and family. They do this without fanfare or self-aggrandizement. There is a rich history of the organization in Cripple Creek.
The building that houses this organization is one of Cripple Creek’s architectural gems. Starting out as the Mining Exchange Building which handled all the financial business for the huge gold strikes not only in Cripple Creek, Victor, Gold Field, and Altman, but for the rest of the state as well including the booms in Leadville and Breckenridge. The three-story brick building was built after the 1896 fires and continued as the Mining Exchange until the Elks purchased it in 1911 when the gold boom started to wane. The first floor was always retail space, housing a pharmacy owned by G R Lewis, a successful pharmacist as well as gold mining investor and The Newport Gambling Hall. It is here that the more dramatic history of the building took place.
The entry speaks of private membership itself. The double doors open onto an interior staircase that climbs to the second story where either a key card, received at initiation, or the door bell gains you admittance to a lobby that is dominated by a 100-year-old Elk. Dark Victorian wood railings, staircases, finials, and molding and plush carpeting create the hushed atmosphere of the Victorian era that is the foundation of the construction.
The walls are lined with history. Photographs of groups, members, and the building itself along with lists of members during the years of existence, create a history rich in personal voluntarism. Private is the word that describes this hallowed hall. The rooms are a maze of old and new as much of the building is exactly the way it was constructed while adding new necessities over the years.
Until about 12 years ago, the Order was a men’s only organization. The building provides sleeping rooms which can only be occupied by Members and their Wives (not girlfriends) with bathrooms down the hall. With the admission of women, two Ladies Rooms have been added, changing walls and floors. These renovations, along with the addition of a new furnace upstairs and the state of the art kitchen, have moved walls and floors which makes the building Cripple Creek’s version of the Winchester House. Windows extend up into the ceiling of the Ladies Room, a window that opens to nothing, doorways that create hallways through rooms.
The Grand Hall at the back of the building was added around 1950. With its lighted stained glass over the head chairs, its seats around the walls and the presence of seating in the balcony, the Grand Hall is exactly that. Under the balcony is an atmospheric bar complete with Art Deco mirrors and mahogany paneling.
The empty retail space to the left of the entry housed the Newport Gambling Hall before the Elks purchased the building. On August 22, 1901, Sam Strong was shot to death by Grant Cumley, part owner of the Newport over a gambling debt dispute with Strong. Crumbly raised a shot-gun and fired, killing Strong. Strong died a few hours after the altercation. Crumbly was tried and found innocent. The presence of the Newport brings a completely different energy to the first floor of the building.
The building is well worth a tour for its Victorian architecture, its history and its quirky original construction and renovation. Like many buildings in Cripple Creek with their dramatic and sometimes violent past, the Elks Club has an ambiance of Victorian stability and a hint of the mysterious.