Carlisle, PA is a town known for the Army War College, two historic institutions of higher learning, and its great downtown. But did you know that the downtown is home to a hidden secret: a long-shuttered Odd Fellow Hall?
Even as a resident of Carlisle myself for the past several years, I’ve walked right passed this spot dozens of times, having no idea of the beauty tucked away above me as I strolled down West High Street.
This Odd Fellow Hall is located above History on High, a store run by the Cumberland County Historical Society, who currently owns the building. The building’s exterior does look a little out of place if you really look at it, but the beauty of this spot is largely hidden from view.
However, if you walk up to the third floor of the building, the beauty is sure to astound you.
History of the Odd Fellows Hall in Carlisle
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) was founded in Baltimore, Maryland in 1819, and was based on the Order of Odd Fellows founded in England in the 18th century. Odd Fellow Lodge Number 91 was founded in Carlisle in the late 19th century and acquired an 18th-century building on West High Street in 1895.
Over the next few years, they constructed their lodge on the building’s third floor. Odd Fellows lodges were typically constructed near the highest point in a town to help keep prying eyes out, which made this a perfect spot.
In 1900, a local painter, John David Braught, was brought in to paint the incredible murals on the walls and ceilings of the main hall. These murals tell the story of the Good Samaritan, among others.
This is, in large part, because the Odd Fellows, despite the secrecy and even rumors of rituals with real skeletons, was a fraternal society that was first and foremost designed to help people. This was especially needed in the time before things like social security, health care, and pensions.
While the Odd Fellows was a thriving organization at one time, they left their location in downtown Carlisle in the 1930s. While the building was used for a variety of things over the years, the hall on the third floor was largely left abandoned for over 70 years until the Cumberland County Historical Society purchased the building in 2005.
When they took over the building, the lodge was inhabited by birds and rain was seeping in through the ceiling. Fortunately, work was done to stabilize the roof and clean the area to help preserve the space.
Since then, though, little has been done to refurbish the space, which gives it a bit of an abandoned look. Obviously, I’d love to see it restored, but, as a fan of abandoned places in PA, I also really love the current patina of the space.
The historical society does hope to refurbish the space at some point, though it won’t be an inexpensive endeavor, so timing and future plans are a little up in the air right now.
Exploring the Odd Fellows Hall in Carlisle
There are several rooms that make up the Odd Fellows Hall in Carlisle, and all are accessed via a non-descript door at the top of a long staircase. While the space is only opened for tours a few times a year, I was privileged to be granted access to the space by the historical society.
The first and second rooms of the space are essentially empty, but take note of the peepholes in the doors that can be opened or closed by those inside to keep prying eyes out. A sliding piece of metal can open and close this hole from the inside of the space.
Off of the second space, there is a room that was used to store items used by the Odd Fellows. While there are no longer any items in the cabinets and drawers, the built-ins remain in the space, and the woodworking here is absolutely incredible.
A bathroom can be found off of this room, and while it’s obviously been updated a bit, it still retains a lot of historic charm.
While the other rooms are interesting, though, without a doubt, the highlight of the space is the large main hall with its 20-foot ceilings.
This is an incredibly impressive space with amazing light streaming in through the immaculately preserved stained-glass windows. Looking up, the murals, while faded and, in spots, cracked, are stunning.
It’s truly remarkable that a space with so much beauty is hidden right in the heart of town and unknown to almost everyone who walks and drives down the street.
Walking into the room, the first thing you see are the 11 stained glass windows that showcase various aspects of Odd Fellow identity. While I don’t know what much of the symbolism means, I still found them to be incredible to look at, and it’s amazing they survived being neglected for seven decades.
At either end of the room, you’ll find a small wooden stage, though I don’t know if this is an old feature or not. Behind the stage, there are murals on the walls that are quite well-preserved.
The murals continue along the entirety of the arched ceiling, and while some of these are a bit rough, they are all shockingly well preserved given their age and the years of neglect. The painter of the space was definitely very talented.
While these types of murals and windows might be common in other Odd Fellows’ halls, I can’t say I’ve ever seen something like this outside of some of PA’s most beautiful churches.
In addition to the stained glass windows and murals, there are a lot of other interesting details to see here including some really great architecture, antique wall sconces, and more.
This is truly an incredible room and something that is well worth seeing if you ever have the opportunity. Again, it’s amazing that this space isn’t widely known.
How to See the Odd Fellows Hall in Carlisle
The Odd Fellows Hall is not regularly open, so you’ll have to plan ahead if you want to see it for yourself.
The Cumberland County Historical Society offers periodic tours of the space for a small fee a few times each year. Make sure to check their Events page for any upcoming tour opportunities.