Dance Evolution

An historic home for dance, with a gay-rights past

3442111508_c06b4b9156_bPhoto: MIT Libraries

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By Alexandra Lapkin

W

hat do Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, and Franklin Roosevelt all have in common? The little-known fact that they were all members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization committed to improving conditions of the poor and the sick. That kind of thing was considered odd in 18th-century England, where the Order of the Odd Fellows originated. Its members branched out into an American independent chapter in 1819.

Another surprising fact is that there is an Odd Fellows Hall located right in the middle of Central Square. If you’ve ever taken a class at the Dance Complex, browsed through music at Cheapo Records, or (even if you are too shy to admit it) shopped for fetish clothing at Hubba Hubba, you’ve already been in this historic building.

The hall, at 536 Massachusetts Ave., it was designed in 1884 by the architectural firm of Hartwell & Richardson in the Romanesque style. Like other lodges in the late 19th century, its ground floor was occupied by businesses, with the meeting rooms upstairs. Architects Henry Hartwell and William Richardson were prolific designers beginning in the early 1880s and through the 1900s, with their Romanesque-revival town halls, churches, libraries, and commercial buildings contributing significantly to Boston’s architectural character. The Hartwell & Richardson firm is perhaps best known for designing the First Baptist Church, the distinctive red building at 5 Magazine St., also in Central.

Among the Odd Fellows Hall’s lesser-known tenants was the Student Homophile League of Boston, which held meetings and dances there from 1971 to 1972. The league was organized in 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots n New York. Stan Tillotson, an MIT student, started the group to help gay Boston-area college students through the process of coming out. The league had offices and held dances in the Odd Fellows Hall, and used it as a base for educational outreach—until 1972, when its lease was not renewed and it was asked to move out. The Student Homophile League disbanded soon afterward.

Over the years, the Odd Fellows Hall has been the home to clothing and shoe stores, hair salons, even a health club. In the early 1980s, when the owners declared bankruptcy and boarded up the building, it was saved by the Dance Complex’s founder and president, Rozann Kraus, who got a loan from the city to buy it and create a dance studio. Today, the Dance Complex takes up all but the ground floor of the hall, whose spacious meeting rooms have proven perfect for dancing. And not odd at all.

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