Niles couple transforming former Elks Lodge

The upper floor ballroom in the former Elks lodge.

An empty three story, 21,000 square foot building that has fallen into disarray in the heart of Niles, may intimidate some potential buyers; but not Donny and Melanie Kennedy.

“We have lost our minds a little bit,” laughed Melanie.

The old Elk figurines on walls and doors and the painted clocks all set to 11 o’clock – was the kind of character the parents of two were looked for. The former Elks Lodge wasn’t on the market, but they made an offer and took on their biggest project yet.

Together, with the help of close family and friends, they’ll transform the old lodge into a multi-purpose event center called The Grand LV. This week, they rented the basement level for the first event in the space – a fundraiser for a group of Cass County 4H kids.

“I’m really happy,” beamed Melanie at the first event. “We can just breathe for a minute because it’s been so hectic.”

Since February, the couple threw their efforts behind the renovations in the basement. It was once a bowling alley when the Elks owned the property.

Old newspaper articles said the lanes were removed in the 1970s because of low use and high maintenance.

The couple salvaged the floor which included some old lanes. Donny also found parts of the lanes buried underneath floor boards.

But it wasn’t until later, Melanie realized – she recognized those lanes. She pulled out a photograph of her mother, throwing her bouquet at her 1974 wedding, and realized the wedding occurred in that very same basement.

“I did not know that,” said Melanie. “That’s super personal to me now. It changes everything really.”

Before their first event started on Monday evening, Donny hung that same picture of Melanie’s mother in the basement area, called Fifty5. It’s the roman numerals L and V, representative of her parents’ names, Lennie and Vickie.

“It’s emotional sometimes,” Melanie said pausing for a moment. “I am really glad we did it. I feel like the door opened for us at the right moment, with the right purpose and it feels good.”

The birth of the Niles Elks Temple

What was once commonly referred to as the Elks Temple when it was dedicated in 1929, the organization spent $140,000 on the initial construction project.

Old newspaper articles showed that it’s one of three remaining Elks temples in the US built solely “for that purpose.” Those articles stated those three temples were the only three where weddings and funerals could occur.

Records showed the first pin-setting machine in the country was developed for and tested at the Niles Elks temple. The Kennedy’s also found old bowling ball returns lanes underneath the stage on the third floor.

Membership was up to nearly 1,100 people but dwindled down to 500; a South Bend Tribune report from 1987 cited an Elks official who said the building was “way too big for our needs” and the utilities and upkeep simply were too costly.

The Elks tried to sell the buildings in the 1980s, but didn’t succeed until 2002.

Tenants like the American Legion came in, but the building continued to fall into disarray. It was sold in 2012 and again this year, purchased by the Kennedy’s.

They bought it for $150,000, just shy of the $140,000 the Elks spent on the building in 1929.

In its glory days, the second floor was home to a dining area, bar and a “stags” lounge. Today, old music stands, cardboard boxes and trash are scattered on the floor.

An American Legion patch rests in dust on top of a once bustling bar top. The Kennedy’s plan to turn part of the second floor into a fully functional tavern.

They also plan to turn a former ladies lounge, laden in 1970s orange and brown, into a bridal suite painted in white, with a standing mirror and statement sofas.

The will also renovate the third floor which was a former ballroom and gymnasium. Melanie hopes to transform the stage complete with an arched ceiling, into venue for live entertainment.

“There was a lot of history that still remained that was pretty much untouched for many years,” said Donny. “[It] really needed some TLC, someone to come in and revamp it back to its former glory.”

But the Kennedy’s know the realistic timeline for a renovation project of this kind won’t happen quickly. They’ve already received inquiries about using the third floor ballroom, which can hold 500 people, for a wedding.

But Melanie had to turn away those inquiries because she said they have to take it one project at a time.

“Everyone from my generation who has lived here forever is ready to see some change downtown,” said Melanie. “I think that it’s kind of happening at the same time which is really exciting.”

Part of that excitement came for the Kennedy’s during the first event in the basement venue. On Monday, some Cass County 4H kids hosted a painting fundraiser.

“It’s not only giving back to them and Niles,” said Robin Runyan, who is a key leader for the organization. “We also have a bunch of 4Hers…the fundraiser is toward them.”

As the organizers set up that event, Donny grabbed a framed photo of Melanie’s mother tossing her bouquet, and hung it on the wall. A testament to a new chapter for The Grand LV.

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