Residents of what were then two boomtowns, New Tacoma and Old Tacoma, organized the area’s first Knights of Pythias lodge in 1881 as a way to tap into the rapid growth of pioneer towns due to the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The Knights of Pythias was a relatively new fraternal order at the time, having been founded in 1864 by Justus Rathbone to promote “friendship, charity and benevolence” in the waning days of the Civil War. After gaining the full support of Rathbone’s friend, President Abraham Lincoln, it was the first fraternal order chartered by Congress.
The secret society has its own rites, rituals and symbols that are known only to its members and draws its name from the Greek tale of Damon and Pythias. Pythias was captured by Dionysus, the tyrant of Syracuse, and sentenced to death. Dionysus, however, allowed Pythias to return to Athens to visit his ailing wife as long as Damon remained a hostage to guarantee Pythias’ return. Dionysius believed Pythias would never return, breaking his oath to give his life for his brother-in-arms. But Pythias kept his word and returned for his appointment with the executioner. Dionysus was so moved that he released both men. It is a story of brotherhood the country needed to heal the wounds of the “house divided” during the Civil War.
While impressive on the outside, the lodge’s true splendor lies within. Its grandest room, known as Castle Hall, offers 35-foot vaulted ceilings, three elliptical skylights, mahogany panels and ornately carved furnishings that date back to the building’s construction. Watercolor-on-canvas murals along the ceiling portray the tale of Damon and Pythias. They were painted 110 years ago by scenic artist Carl Reyna, who was paid $35 per panel for his efforts. The century-old light fixtures also offer a glimpse into the lodge’s history since they provide both electric outlets and gas lamps – just in case the “new technology” of electricity did not gain popularity.
Adjoining the Castle Hall is the former dance hall, complete with polished hardwood floors and a raised area for bands and performances. It is currently used for activities and meetings, primarily by the Pythian Sisters. The top floor includes a full dining room and kitchen that is used for lodge receptions, dinners and breakfasts that are open to the public.
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