The Aspen Elks Lodge

Janet Urquhart

It is the epitome of Aspen, and at the same time, the antithesis of the resort’s ritzy playground image.

Wealth and influence will not crack its exclusivity, yet its doors open regularly to new recruits who offer nothing more, but nothing less, than a desire to carry on its benevolent mission. Its roster reads like a “Who’s Who of Aspen,” and yet, it is distinctly devoid of the celebrity and Fortune 500 names regularly associated with this world-famous burg.

Membership in the BPOE – the “best people on Earth” as members like to quip with a grin – has its privileges: the ability to make a difference in the lives of others and, hands down, the best bar in town.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks has been an unflagging institution in Aspen since the Aspen Elks Lodge No. 224 was established in 1891. At that time, a number of fraternal organizations played prominent roles in the social fabric of the community. The Elks even had a weekly column in the newspaper; goings-on at the lodge were big news.

Elks of that era did more to forward the order’s future philanthropic endeavors than they could possibly have guessed, purchasing the stately building at the corner of Galena and Hyman in 1917. Today, the prime piece of real estate in downtown Aspen serves as both the lodge’s headquarters and the source of considerable funds funneled to a variety of nonprofit causes.

The lodge – don’t call it a “club,” admonishes Exalted Ruler Steve Saunders – currently boasts 714 members, about half of whom are local residents and active participants. An Elk who moves away can maintain membership in the Aspen lodge for life, so long as he or she continues to pay the annual dues – a sum lodge leaders refused to divulge, but described as “affordable.”

While the lodge regularly admits community groups and individual guests to their enviable perch in the Elks Building, with its dramatic views of town and Aspen Mountain, it retains an undeniable measure of mystique.

A magnificent bronze sculpture of an elk’s head marks the lodge entrance. An elevator ride to the third floor empties into a small lobby with an electronically locked door. Elks slip the magnetic strip of their membership card through the scanning device on the wall to gain admittance. Others must push a button, identify themselves and their purpose through an intercom, and await the buzzer that signals the unlocking of the door. Guests must be signed in by a member.

Once inside, an outsider quickly grasps at least one allure of Elks membership: the bar. It exudes elegance without crossing over to posh and pretentious. On a Friday night, every stool at the long, polished surface is occupied. The back bar, an ornate, dark-wood affair, was rescued from a Denver warehouse.

Tables dot a leafy-patterned carpet of subdued red, green and cream. Think high ceiling, lots of wood trim, distressed-brick walls and multiple, tall windows with unparalleled views from the front corner of the lodge’s penthouse quarters. A second room contains two imposing, century-old pool tables and a third serves as the meeting room. It’s also the dining room and dance floor for social events.

The requisite mounts include an imposing six-point elk (that’s six on each antler) overlooking activity in the bar, where the drink prices are an Aspen anomaly.

Draft beer, typically a buck a glass, goes for 75 cents during Friday happy hour; bottled beer is $1.50.

“I think we still have the cheapest beer prices anywhere in town,” said Saunders in what may be the understatement of the year.

Nonetheless, Elks remain generally well-behaved, according to Brian O’Neil, bartender and lecturing knight.

“One nice thing about tending bar here, there’s a code of behavior,” he said. “You behave like a gentleman. You’ll be called on the carpet if that doesn’t happen.”

Other lodge rules: No talk of religion, political issues or engaging in business dealings. Also, no profanity or wearing a hat into the lodge. Forget to park your baseball cap atop the coat rack and you may wind up buying a round for the crowd.

Thursday night is the traditional steak night, though the modest menu has expanded beyond simply steak and prime rib and includes a salad bar. No entree tops $17. On Fridays, burger night, a cheeseburger or chicken sandwich with a generous portion of curly fries goes for $4. That’s right – four U.S. dollars.

Members greet each other – and guests – warmly. The atmosphere feels like television’s “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name.

“It’s the coolest place in town,” confirmed Rick Head, who has been appointed to serve as inner guard, one of eight officer positions, or chairs, within the lodge leadership structure.

O’Neil calls the membership Aspen’s “bedrock aristocracy.” It includes members of longtime local families and a true cross section of Aspen: firefighters, politicians, businessmen, Mountain Rescue-Aspen members, the police chief, ski instructors, professionals and blue-collar workers.

Jack Frey, owner of the Butcher’s Block, joined the lodge 32 years ago.

“I first came to town and it was kind of the thing to do,” he said. “That’s where all the old-timers were. I loved the people, the camaraderie.”

“Plugging into the Elks just seemed like a natural because it was hard-core Aspen,” agreed Tom McCabe, a repair shop owner and city councilman. “It’s a fine crew of people and they do good things.”

It is no longer a good ol’ boys’ club, figuratively or literally.

“Most people picture Elks as a lot of old Fred Flintstones. Look around,” directed Gary Quist, a PER – that’s Elkspeak for past exalted ruler. There aren’t many Freds in evidence.

“The perception of some old, fat guys sitting at the bar is long gone,” Saunders agreed.

Rather, a diverse group of primarily men and a sprinkling of women swell the membership rolls of the Aspen Elks.

“In a lot of lodges, it’s kind of the Old Guard hangs on,” O’Neil said. “We’ve been lucky. A lot of young guys come in and get involved, and we open the door to it. We let them get involved.”

In fact, Loyal Knight Matt Dunn, expected to ascend to the post of exalted ruler, or ER, in April, hardly looks his 37 years. An electrician by trade, the fair-haired Dunn flashes a shy smile and sports an earring. He does not evoke images of Fred Flintstone.

Today, the Aspen lodge counts about 40 women among its members, and the number is growing. The Grand Lodge, the Elks’ national organization, voted in 1995 to admit women despite opposition from many of its local lodges. The threat of lawsuits prompted the change.

“I think it has added a great dimension,” said member Bob Vail. “To eliminate the ideas of 50 percent of the population is not a good thing.”

With time, even the old-timers accepted the change.

“The people who said, ‘I’ll never come back in,’ they came back,” Saunders noted.

Charles “Skip” Ela, a 74-year-old PER who will soon mark 40 years as an Elk, admits he was less than thrilled with the whole woman thing at first.

“It doesn’t bother me anymore. We’re still a fraternal organization,” he added pointedly. “We’re not a sorority, all right.”

The women of the lodge, drawn to the Elks for the same reasons that attract many of the men, say they feel right at home in the former bastion of male bonding.

“They’re an incredibly great group of guys,” reported Judy Francis, a longtime local resident and ski instructor who joined the lodge about a year ago.

“My father was an Elk. I’d lived here for ages and I decided to join because they do such great work,” she said.

“It’s a great group of people and they make major contributions to the community. I wanted to be a part of it,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud, who was inducted two years ago. “I think one of the things for me, and I know for other people up there, there’s an interest in having people who are really willing to give back to the community.”

Anyone can apply to become an Elk; most are encouraged to seek membership by someone who’s already a lodge member. Applicants must have a sponsor within the lodge, plus the backing of two other members who will support their application. Ultimately, the lodge membership votes on each applicant in a secret ballot; a two-thirds majority is necessary to get the nod.

The lodge essentially stopped accepting new applications for a while, but only in order to catch up on a backlog of applications, Saunders said. The background investigation of applicants includes a check of their criminal history.

No goats, no bugling

The initiation rite, closed to all but Elks and the initiates, is conducted by the eight officers, clad in tuxedos and the heavy-duty necklaces that signify their posts.

The ceremony dates back to the 19th century, when a small group of New York thespians and musical entertainers who called themselves the Jolly Corks formed the loose organization that would evolve into the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in 1868.

Since the ritual was devised by actors, it involves spoken parts that must be memorized – no peeking at a script. The ceremony is supposed to take exactly 43 minutes. Typically, an officer will ascend the order of the eight chairs and serve a year as exalted ruler. That means learning all eight parts.

“It really is cool stuff,” said Quist, who’s currently filling in as leading knight, second in command to the ER. “It’s kind of neat that something that old carries on to this day.”

“It’s a traditional piece. It stresses the idea of being a gentleman, being a good citizen, stuff like that,” O’Neil said. The spoken parts have been modified slightly, he added, to delete the gender-specific references now that women, too, are inducted into Elkdom.

There are no secret handshakes, antlered hats or elk bugle calls in the ceremony, Saunders added. And the rumored participation of a goat is just that, a rumor, he said.

While the initiation is closed to the public, the April changing of the guard is open to spectators. The new officers will be sworn in, and the necklace of their post placed upon their shoulders. The lodge’s PERs conduct the ceremony.

In the lodge meeting room, the seating is arranged along the walls. Officers sit in eight thronelike chairs, padded with red leather, placed at designated points around the room.

Twice a month, the lodge meets to conduct its business, much of which is overseeing its diverse, benevolent activities. Support of veterans and youths are big components for the Aspen lodge, though any organization, or even an individual in need of help, may seek assistance from the Elks.

Saunders declined to discuss just how much the local lodge donates to various causes in the course of a year, but conceded its real estate – namely the Elks Building – brings in more revenue that many lodges are likely to generate for charity work. Maintaining the historic building, however, isn’t cheap, he noted.

The headquarters

The lodge renovated the building to the tune of about $1.5 million in the early 1990s. The first floor was remodeled to accommodate retail uses and the Elks moved from space on the first and second floors up to the third floor.

The sandstone and brick building with the distinctive gold cornice and dome atop the front corner was constructed in 1891 by early Aspen businessman Henry Webber. Its $40,000 construction cost made it the third most expensive building in town, behind the Wheeler Opera House and Hotel Jerome, according to historical accounts.

Originally called the Webber Block building, it was purchased by the Aspen National Bank in 1892. Early on, the building housed the bank and a drugstore on the ground floor. Aspen’s post office was located in the building from 1924 to 1959. Before the remodeling, Tom’s Market, a grocer, occupied the ground floor.

At one point, both the Elks and the Masons had space in the building.

Now, the basement of the building is leased to Shooters nightclub, interior-furnishings store Amen Wardy occupies the first floor, and businesses rent office space on the second floor.

With the third floor considered a nonprofit, tax-exempt property, the value of the remainder of the building is currently assessed at $8.9 million, according to the Pitkin County assessor’s office.

A charitable mission

Overseeing the building and the lodge business is a group of officers and trustees headed by the exalted ruler. Saunders, a builder, describes the demanding post as sort of the CEO of the Elks. “Being ER is a full-time job. It’s inundating,” he said.

“We donate a lot of money to different causes. To administer that means a lot of decisions, a lot of work,” Quist agreed.

It’s no wonder Elks sometimes refer to the ER as the “exhausted rooster.”

Currently, the lodge is gearing up for the third annual National Disabled Veterans Sports Clinic, which will bring some 400 veterans and 800 support staff to Snowmass Village, March 31 through April 5.

Last year, about 70 lodge members put some 760 volunteer hours into the event, said member Bob Vail, co-chairman of the Veterans Committee.

Elks will be involved in everything from welcoming the visitors at the airport and serving them meals at the lodge to arranging tours of the town and assisting veterans who will take part in skiing, archery, fishing, horseback riding and the like during their stay.

The commitment to veterans has been embraced by Elks nationwide. The order has proclaimed: “So long as there are veterans, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will never forget them.”

The Aspen Elks host area veterans for lunch at the lodge following the annual Veterans Day ceremony, and the lodge was active in recent restoration work at the Ute Cemetery where Civil War veterans are buried.

The group also hosts an annual Flag Day ceremony that is open to the public, and events for senior citizens four times a year. On July 4, seniors are invited up to the lodge for lunch and a great view of the parade on the streets below.

A host of youth-oriented organizations also receive help from the Elks. The lodge divvies up about $70,000 a year in scholarships to graduates of Aspen and Basalt high schools. Some 20 seniors from the two schools are interviewed, and four or five scholarships are awarded.

Last year, the lodge focused specifically on students in need of financial help and those planning to seek vocational training instead of a university degree, Saunders said.

The Elks also sponsor a long list of youth groups. A sampling of proposed funding recipients includes: Girl Scouts and Brownies, Little League teams, Basalt girls volleyball, the Aspen Peer Mentor Program and Three Rivers football. Scholarships that enable youngsters to participate in everything from Aspen Recreation Department programs to Aspen Junior Hockey, the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, Aspen Junior Golf, soccer and music are proposed for 2003-2004.

Eric Carman is chairman of the Youth Activities Committee.

“Eric sits down and finds out what child would not be able to participate if we didn’t help out,” Quist said.

The impact individuals can have in the community through involvement with the Elks is gratifying, members concur.

For O’Neil, who began bartending for the lodge as an employee in 1988, what the guys on the other side of the bar accomplished was enticing.

“I worked here and I really saw the other side of it – the things they do for the community, so I decided to join,” he said. “I think it’s the satisfaction of getting involved. You can do so much more as a group than as an individual.”

Clay Gerwick, newly recruited to fill the chair of tiler in the Elks hierarchy, echoes O’Neil’s experience.

Through his involvement with the lodge’s Golf Committee, Gerwick has watched the Elks’ annual golf tournament go from raising $2,000 for the Aspen Buddy Program to $4,000 for the Aspen Education Foundation to $6,000 for YouthZone last year. The latter program offers alternatives to a criminal conviction for juveniles in trouble with the law.

“That’s amazing,” Gerwick gushed. “I’m a carpenter. I could never give $6,000 to anybody, but that’s the experience.”

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is