"I think we all pretty much gave up," said Gloria Palladino, a long-time member who became the first female to hold the title of Exalted Ruler three years ago. "It was so sad to see the lodge looking that way."
"We all thought the lodge was done," said Donna Oppella, the current Exalted Ruler and the second woman to ever hold the distinction. "We didn't think there was a chance it could come back."
However, both the members of the charity-driven Elks and the township of Weehawken officials agreed that the Lodge had to be rehabilitated and restored to life. No matter how long it would take, the 80-year-old Lodge had a sense of importance to the town, especially to its members, but also to the community, who utilized the Lodge as a meeting place and banquet hall.
So a plan was devised to get a new mortgage on the facility, in order to get a construction loan to collect the funds necessary to renovate the Lodge. There were fund raising efforts and events, even though the improvements were going to cost an estimated $800,000, the work had to be done.
There were some obstacles and delays along the way, but as of last week, the construction work to the Weehawken Elks Lodge was completed and the facility was back open for business.
"It's a very good feeling," said Oppella, whose term as Exalted Ruler has included meetings that were held at the Cliffside Park Elks Lodge. "It's exciting. We still have a lot of work to do, but now we're home. We finally have our own home back."
The Elks Lodge hosted its first events last week, like an 80th birthday celebration for Katy Sosa, the mother of 3rd Ward Councilman Robert Sosa. There was another party as well, plus the Elks have already held two important meetings, a District meeting and the first local meeting at the Lodge in more than three years.
"People said that they couldn't believe it was the same Lodge," Oppella said. "It's like night and day. We're getting a lot of compliments, saying that the Lodge is more accommodating now. It's very gratifying with all the work that went into it."
Oppella added, "It was so good to see so many friendly faces coming back, sharing their memories. It was a good feeling. It was a long time coming."
While workers began the painstaking process to repair the facility in January of 2003, they found some interesting aspects of the 80-year-old facility that had to be preserved, like historic archways and bluestone walls in the upper floor that could never be duplicated.
A bit of history and old-time Elks tradition was kept, like the old oak wood bar in the building's basement, which was the regular meeting place for Elks for eight decades.
The Lodge's main ballroom was also totally remodeled and features new and expansive picture windows that capture the picturesque view of the Manhattan skyline.
"It was really worth the wait," said Palladino, who spent her year as Exalted Ruler having to hold meetings in Cliffside Park. "It's still a beautiful building, but now, it's better than ever."
Oppella said that there have already been several bookings for future events, such as weddings and parties.
"We're back in business," Oppella said. "I have to give credit to the three Exalted Rulers before me, namely Robert Phillips, Gloria Palladino and Jack Crossan, who more or less kept us all on the right track before we could come back home. They had it the toughest, because they didn't have a Lodge. It was tough on them to get people to go to meetings in Cliffside Park. Now, I have a Lodge. I have the best of both worlds."
Popular events scheduled
Oppella said that two popular Elks events, Italian Night (Oct. 23) and Press Night (Oct. 25), have already been scheduled at the Lodge after being held at North Bergen's Schuetzen Park for the last three years.
Oppella also said that the Elks Women's Guild will reinstitute regular meetings at the Lodge beginning next month.
Also, on Sept. 19, the Elks will have an official re-dedication, with all the past state presidents on hand. George Safer, a past state president who hails from the Weehawken Elks Lodge, will officiate. All the past exalted rulers from the Weehawken Elks are expected to attend.
"After the ceremony, we're going to open the Lodge to the town, so they can see what's going on," Oppella said. "We never left our town. We've still had our charitable events and hung in there together over the last three years. We always had the Weehawken community in mind, even if we weren't there."