Stepping upstairs into the Secret Society feels like stepping back in time. You pass under the watchful eye of famous Prince Hall Masons, among them Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Alex Haley, Nat King Cole. Once upstairs, you enter the casually elegant lounge modeled after a 1920s hotel lobby bar; its adjoining ballroom has been refurbished to the same tune. The ladies lounge offers Versailles-esque mirrors, fresh flowers, and other ephemera from an earlier era. And, of course, downstairs boasts Portland's finest, Toro Bravo (no introduction necessary). Behind the famous kitchen lives a successful recording studio slash musician hangout. You could easily live here. You want to.
Proprietor and creative visionary Matt Johnson had a dream—but what he currently offers in the Northeast Eliot neighborhood has strayed from his original business plan. In 2004, Johnson spent months scouring Portland's eastside for a warehouse space to house a recording studio and musician's resource center, to no avail. Then, his realtor thought he should look at the Northeast Russell space. As they walked up to the building, ear-splitting sounds emerged from the ballroom windows and its blown out ceiling (think: Quasi and, perhaps, Hella). Johnson immediately thought: "I can make this work."
The 1907 historic building was in a "serious state of disrepair". In just over 100 years, this unique space has housed two fraternal organizations, and various theater, arts, and music groups, including Disjecta. Saving the historic space from high-density residential construction, which would require a total tear down, Johnson spent well over two years renovating. From windows to electrical to plumbing to heating to fixtures to seismic retrofitting to the roof and doors and alarms, the entire building got a major overhaul—except the intact ballroom which needed only resurfacing, painting, as well as some new furniture and lighting. Both Toro Bravo and the Secret Society Recording Studio opened in 2007; the ballroom was already being rented out up to five times per week by various dance groups as early as 2005.
Before he could make the huge purchase, Johnson had to prove to the City that the building had not been vacant for two consecutive years—no small feat. Tracking down former occupants between 1980 and 1994 was challenging—secret societies tend to not leave a strong paper trail—though he did find a splinter group and one lead from the former Prince Hall Masons in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho to try to help him secure some records of property ownership.
In 1980, the City of Portland introduced a comprehensive plan that affected zoning for every property in the land. The Northeast Russell block had a zoning overlay for high density residential and Johnson had to prove to the City that he had precedent to continue on as retail. (Fraternal halls are part of the subclass of retail sales and service. Go figure.)
Finally, Johnson went to the public library and conducted reverse phone directory lookups. There he found record of an operating phone line previously owned during the appropriate timeframe the City dictated to ensure his purchase.
In 1907, the building was designed and erected by Elliott Lee Sanborn, Portland architect, specifically for the Woodsmen of the World, a fraternal organization of woodworkers. The group used this property until 1928 when it was sold; it stayed connected to the fraternal world with its association to IOOF Industrial Lodge Number 99, the Neighbors of Woodcraft Oregon Circle Number 171, and the Associated Bible Students.
The Prince Hall Masons F & AM purchased the building in 1947, transforming it to the locus of activity for Northeast Portland's African Americans, until 1999 when it was sold yet again and morphed into the Russell Street Theater. Disjecta came on the scene a few years later and turned the venue into usable space for working artists, exhibitions, music and other arts-related entertainment and events.
The Ballroom and Recording Studio
Aside from the ecstatic dancers and their marathon dance sessions, special events have been held in the ballroom space since 2005. There's a Ballroom Manager who helps people plan and host their weddings, anniversaries, birthday, holiday, and CD release parties, movies, concerts. The ballroom holds 125 people in its 1800 square feet of hardwood and red velvet curtained finery. The ladies lounge and anteroom add extra appeal for primping parties.
The full-service Secret Society Recording Studio "is suitable for all levels of musicians looking to record." The studio's house producer and engineer Jordan Leff helped bandmate Johnson design a studio with the musician in mind. Here, musicians "record as live as possible, helping minimize overdubs and holding down the cost of recording. With a large live room, control room, lounge, two isolation rooms, and access to the historic ballroom, the recording studio was designed to handle a wide variety of projects."
Johnson notes: "What really sets our recording studio apart are the physical characteristics of the space. We're in a historical setting that is very warm and lush, and the size of the rooms makes us flexible in a way that most studios aren't."
Woodsmen and Masons share the wall space along with other period photographs that Johnson collects and frames. Portland artist Jackie Avery painted a unique oil series for the lounge of Oregon logging scenes to honor the Woodsmen; another artist, Alexis Mollomo, created a wild triptych for the hallway that leads into the recording studio.
Soon after John Gorham opened up shop below Secret Society HQ, Johnson noticed the long lines of people outside waiting to get a table. With Wonder Ballroom adjacent to the building, Johnson knew he could offer a swanky waiting room catering to diners and show-goers alike. After an expensive and lengthy build-out process, the Secret Society Lounge was born to carry the same sensibility prevalent in the historical beauty of the additional space and offerings. Part preservationist, part revivalist, the lounge offers classic cocktails that fit the room and the current mixology movement. "It's a special setting—but not so upscale that you can't stop in after a punk show at the Wonder," quips Johnson.
The Lounge has a committed corps of bartenders and regulars who mix together well. On any given night you might find yourself in the cozy 49-person room laughing in concert with the birthday partiers at the next table, enjoying the guitarist's mellow sounds in the corner, having your Tarot cards read, or eavesdropping on the second daters flirting in the anteroom. At any rate, you'll have fun, and you'll probably return for more. It's the perfect stopping off and/or landing point. Classic cocktails, including absinthe-inspired libations. Light and luscious dinner menu. Daily happy hour 5 to 7 p.m. The Secret Society Lounge is perfect for a first date, a party, or a casual after-work hang.
View the slide show for more photos of The Secret Society or visit our flickr gallery: