GO Arts: Happy Birthday, Pythians! The Knights celebrate 150 years with an open house at their Tacoma lodge.

Tacoma News TribuneFebruary 12, 2014 

Quick, name 10 things you know about the Knights of Pythias!

Stuck? We’re not surprised. The fraternal order isn’t as shrouded in secrecy as some, but there’s definitely an air of mystique about the 1906 temple hidden upstairs in a downtown Tacoma building, and the group of charitable folks who meet there. But fret not! Next Wednesday all will be revealed as the Tacoma Pythians celebrate the 150th anniversary of their order with an open house at the lodge on Broadway, Tacoma.

The open house begins at 6 p.m. Feb. 19, when members of the Commencement no. 7 will give tours of the extraordinary, Frederick Heath-designed hall that looks like something out of Hogwarts (and lies behind an equally Harry Potteresque street number: 924 ½ Broadway). At 7 p.m. there’ll be a screening of the 1962 film classic “Damon and Pythias,” which tells the story of the myth behind the order. Pythias, an Athenian, is sentenced to death but given leave to visit his family one last time if he can find a proxy to stay in prison to guarantee his return. His best friend Damon volunteers – and the story of loyal friendship inspired the order founded on Feb. 19, 1864, with a motto of “Friendship, Charity and Benevolence.”

So what else don’t you know about the Pythians? Here are five fun facts.

5. It was Lincoln’s idea

The order was co-founded by Justus H. Rathbone and Abraham Lincoln as a way for America’s North and South to heal the wounds of the Civil War. In its heyday it was the third-largest order in America, behind the Masons and Oddfellows. Currently, the membership stands at around 50,000 (including the Sisters – see below); the Commencement Lodge meets Monday nights, and does charitable work.

4. It’s not just men

Yes, Virginia, you can join the Pythians. In 1888 the order of Pythian Sisters was founded to engage women in “altruistic endeavors” including the promotion of family and friendship. It’s aligned with the Knights and a few other orders, and is open to any woman over 16 who speaks English and believes, like the Knights, in a supreme being.

3. It’s the interior of Stadium High School (kind of)

The Pythian Temple was built in 1906, and designed by lodge member Frederick Heath, architect of Lincoln High School, St. Patrick’s, First Church of Christ Scientist, Paradise Inn and others – including Stadium High School. But while the interior of Stadium High isn’t nearly as resplendent as its exterior, the Pythian Temple is the reverse, hiding a grand hall with mock Grecian columns, a semi-circular stage, elaborate molding, frieze murals of the Pythias myth and even a 1907 Seybold-Reed pipe organ behind the mysterious street door and a brick exterior. The only hints (and they’re big ones) are the historic mural Pythian Temple sign high on the brick and the vintage green neon sign out front.

2. The Jules Verne connection

Verne published “Around the World in 80 Days” in 1873, decades before the temple was built. But eccentric rail magnate George Francis Train – who had set the round-the-world record in 1870, possibly inspiring Verne’s hero Phileas Fogg – set off on his third such trip in 1890 from the very spot on Broadway where the Pythian Temple now stands.

1. There’s a secret back entrance

Actually, not so secret. If you’ve attended First Night events at the Pythian Temple you’ll have gone through the enormous studded Hogwartsian doors at 924 ½ Broadway. But for the open house (and other times), enter via Court C, up the hill at the back of the building. Look for the green door and the triangular F-C-B logo. You probably don’t need a secret password, though.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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