Nestled on a corner of Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood stands Normanna Hall. It is one of the last ethnic fraternal lodges that once dotted the city’s immigrant neighborhoods.
There were, at one point, community centers for immigrants from Germany, Sweden, Japan, Italy and Switzerland. Members would gather to speak their native tongues and keep their culture alive for future generations through dance classes and festivals as well as support each other in their new life in their adopted home thousands of miles from their motherlands.
Only two of these lodges remain today. There is the Slavonian American Benevolent Society in Old Town that formed in 1901 and continues to promote the culture and heritage of the former Yugoslavian region of Europe. And there is Normanna Hall, home of Norden Lodge #2 of the Sons of Norway, and it is adding members at a rate that could soon bring it back to its peak since the lodge boasts 350 members on its roster.
“I would really like for us to have another 100 members, because then we would be up at the numbers of our heyday,” Lodge President Teresa Hunt said.
Not every member hails from Norway or is male as the Sons of Norway name would imply. People – of any gender – just have to want to learn more about Scandinavian culture through classes, presentations, meals and fellowship. The lodge, for example, has an extensive lending library of donated and purchased books about Scandinavian history, culture, heritage and recipes members can check out. The lodge even offers Nordic knitting classes that drew three dozen people the first night and continue to bring crowds. Its Scandinavian folk dances also draw steady groups. The lodge started Scandinavian cooking classes about a year ago and continues to bring in about two dozen people.
“That is pretty much as many people as we can cram into our kitchen at one time,” Hunt said.
Other members join for the travel discounts and membership benefits through the network of 400 Sons of Norway lodges in America, Canada and Norway. Locally, that means cheap access to campsites and the hot-tub equipped the group’s ski lodge, called Trollgaugen, on Snoqualmie Pass.
Tacoma’s Norden Lodge has changed with the times to meet the needs and desires of its members, but stayed true to its Nordic roots that date back to the birth of Tacoma itself.
The railroad and trading ships brought Scandinavian immigrants to the region by the thousands in the late 1800s, mostly clustering in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, Tacoma’s Hilltop, as well as on Anderson and McNeil islands just off the shores of Steilacoom. This flood of people wanted a way to stay connected to their homelands and cultures. A social group of 92 members then formed in 1907, first meeting for dinners and dances in halls around Tacoma until it could finance a building of its own.
That day came in 1914, when the members pooled their dollars to spend $8,500 for a site at the corner of 15th and K Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The members then issued $25,000 in stock to build Normanna Hall. The building took shape in 1922 and opened on March 7, 1923, to uphold the principles of “fraternity, charity and harmony.” It should be noted that most meetings were conducted in Norwegian in those days. The lodge adopted English as its language of record at the outbreak of World War II.
Tragedy visited the doors of Normanna Hall on August 17, 1963, when a fire broke out in the kitchen. Flames damaged the fixtures and walls, but a fireproof ceiling that had been installed just three weeks prior to the fire contained the flames well enough to keep the two-alarm blaze from spreading to the upper floors. A silver lining to the fire, however, was that it allowed the hall to undergo an extensive remodel to its kitchen, which is well used for dinners, breakfasts and cooking classes to this day.
With 115 years of history, the lodge’s membership had some of the area’s most notable names through the years. There was Thor Tollefson, a local attorney turned Pierce County Prosecutor and then Congressman. He would leave his mark on the lodge as well as Tacoma in general that would, of course, earn the honor of having a downtown plaza named after him.
And then there was Thea Foss. She is undeniably the lodge’s most famous alum. Foss came to Tacoma with her husband Andrew in 1889. She immediately saw a business opportunity of renting boats. That venture grew to what is now Foss Maritime, a shipbuilding venture that now employs more than 1,000 people. She rose to international fame with the major motion picture telling her life story as the original “Tugboat Annie.” The waterway closest to downtown is named in her honor.
Whether through its historical roots and landmark building or through the interest by modern residents, the walls of Normanna Hall continue to serve its members and the region at large. And it will well into the future.