April 06. 2013 1:20AM

Community embraces Odd Fellows Hall's rebirth

New Hampshire Union Leader

Renie Denton, left, director of the Manchester Community Resource Center, confers with receptionist Fawn Francis in the lobby of the renovated Odd Fellows Hall on Thursday in Manchester. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER PHOTO)

Once the location for secret meetings and bingo games, the Odd Fellows Hall in the Hollow neighborhood opened its doors last month, transformed into a community meeting area and a home for at least two social service agencies.

On March 15, the Manchester Community Resources Center and the police substation moved from 177 Lake Ave. to the Odd Fellows Hall, said Resources Center director Renie Denton. Her organization provides language, job-seeking, education and other skills to recent immigrants and other city residents.

She predicted the building, which has received a $3.4 million makeover, will prove an asset to the neighborhood.

"The corner, it looks better now," said Kay Skilogianis, owner of Kay's Bakery, a decades-old business located on the opposite side of the intersection.

"It's nice to see they didn't tear it down. It's nice to see it occupied rather than vacant," said Ben Lubelczyk, owner of Milligan & Currier Hardware, located a few doors down from the hall.

City aldermen have approved a lease for the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success, a non-profit organization, on a portion of the second floor. A smaller space is available on the third floor. City officials hope all organizations in the building will provide support services to new arrivals to America, New Hampshire and Manchester.

"Having everybody in the building will really help provide services seamlessly," Denton said. Her agency occupies the most visible part of the building - the ground level, where workers removed brick that had hidden large storefront-sized windows.

Earlier this month, morning sun poured into the lobby, providing a warm glow to the earth tones that Denton had selected for the interior walls.

Leon LaFreniere, director of planning and community development, said the city restored the building in two phases. In 2010-11, the city used $1.3 million in a federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program to buy the building, install an elevator and interior stairs, replace the roof, restore the brick exterior and make structural repairs.

He said the building wouldn't have lasted another decade without the work.

Starting last November, the second phase started, a $2.1 million project that opened up bricked-over windows, replaced worn electrical, heating and plumbing systems and renovating the interior.

Federal grants, private donations, tax credit financing and unused bond proceeds were used to pay for the project. The Concord construction firm Milestone did the work in about six months.

The Odd Fellows Hall was built in the early years of the 20th century. One interior door contains a peep hole, needed when the organization was holding its secret ceremony in its upstairs auditorium. It initially was home to small businesses such as grocers. In the 1970s, the Catholic War Veterans used it for bingo.

But it has been vacant for decades.

The restoration, designed by Manchester architect Fred Matuszewski, preserves much of the hardwood moldings, wainscoting and arched, two-story windows found throughout the building. Yet, it lives up to its name of being odd. Some portions of the second and third floors are single-story, but other areas of the second floor are two stories high, featuring 30-foot ceilings with impressive, oak-framed windows.

Ornate molding that measures three feet thick shares some corners with a modern interior wall. Unlike the millyard, no brick interior walls are found, and any duct work is hidden above suspended ceilings.

The fourth floor features an open room with generous amounts of dark oak woodwork. Oak beams form a grid on the ceiling. Views from the windows show the rooftops of the surrounding neighborhood.

Denton said the space can be used for community meetings and leased for events. The floor includes a $20,000 commercial kitchen were people will learn how to cook.

She said some clients who used the services will have to walk or drive farther, but those who live in the Hollow neighborhood are now closer.

A lot has changed for the better in the inner city, when the Manchester Community Resource Center opened in the late 1990s farther down Lake Avenue. That can now happen in The Hollow, she said. "This area up here really needs the community services here for them," she said.

LaFreniere said the repurposing will prove a benefit to the neighborhood. And if organizations such as the Resource Center and ORIS were not around, the job of helping new arrivals would fall onto the city, LaFreniere said.

"We've taken a derelict building that was attracting vandalism, graffiti and definitely not contributing anything positive to the neighborhood, and now it's an attractive building providing services to the neighborhood," he said.