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Astoria Arts and Movement Center: Historic Odd Fellows Building becomes a center for dance and community

More than 90,000 votes helped the nonprofit gain funds to restore the long-neglected building, where the majestic ballroom now hosts classes ranging from ballet to Zumba.

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A dance fitness class takes place in the 4,000-square-foot ballroom. One Movement Center instructor calls the space "a castle in the clouds." Photo courtesy: Astoria Arts and Movement Center
A dance fitness class offered at the Astoria Arts and Movement Center takes place in the light-filled ballroom of the historic Astoria Odd Fellows Building. One Movement Center instructor calls the space “a castle in the clouds.” Photo courtesy: Astoria Arts and Movement Center

Jessamyn West can spot a newcomer the instant they cross the Astoria ballroom threshold. Not only because, not so long ago, she was one, but also because their response is as obvious as the zils on a belly dancer.

“One of my favorite things in the world is witnessing people walk into the ballroom for the first time,” said West, founder of the nonprofit Astoria Arts and Movement Center (AAMC) and belly dance instructor. “Oftentimes, it’s the same reaction I had; your breath is just taken away that a space like that exists. It’s just grand, a magnificent space.”

Inexplicably enough — to no one more so than West herself — 12 years after first glimpsing the ballroom in the two-story Odd Fellows Building, she, along with two partners, owns it.   


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Today, the Odd Fellows Building is known for its vast array of dance and movement classes, the community events that welcome all, and the goodwill to share the arts flourishing within. More than a 9,000-square-foot historic building unmistakable in its new bright façade, it’s an example of the amazing transformation that comes when a community rallies.

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“What the Astoria Arts and Movement Center does is it fills a very critical gap in opportunities for healthy physical activity and artistic expression in a town in a rural county that otherwise just wouldn’t be there,” said Bruce Jones, former mayor of Astoria. “They donate their time and talents to fundraising efforts. They work with Consejo Hispano, which is our local Hispanic support group. I think it’s really important, an outlet for a whole lot of people that otherwise might be struggling for something fulfilling and rewarding to do.”

The 1923 Astoria Odd Fellows building is the home of the Astoria Arts and Movement Center, where nearly 40 instructors offer classes and workshops for as little as $5 each. “We really wanted to reach everybody in the community,” says founder Jessamyn West, explaining the decision to run the center as a nonprofit. “We didn't want to put up any kind of financial barriers.’’ Photo by Leah Nash for Preservation Magazine; courtesy of Astoria Arts and Movement Center
The 1923 Astoria Odd Fellows building is the home of the Astoria Arts and Movement Center, where nearly 40 instructors offer classes and workshops for as little as $5 each. “We really wanted to reach everybody in the community,” says founder Jessamyn West, explaining the decision to run the center as a nonprofit. “We didn’t want to put up any kind of financial barriers.’’ Photo by Leah Nash for Preservation Magazine; courtesy of Astoria Arts and Movement Center

West first came upon the Odd Fellows Building in 2012 after losing, yet again, the space where she taught belly dancing. She’d founded the AAMC in 2011 and had been teaching in whatever space she could find: garages; apartments; shops after hours; a church. She was beginning to lose hope; then she visited the Odd Fellows ballroom. “I felt the importance of protecting and honoring spaces like it. It was the only time I truly felt in my heart that this was the way I could give back to the community.”

West moved in, and her classes thrived.  But not five years later, the building on the corner of 10th and Commercial downtown was on the market and word around town was that the intentions of prospective out-of-town buyers didn’t sound all that neighborly.

“It became almost immediately apparent that anybody looking at buying the building would displace, potentially, all of the tenants, but definitely the dance studio, just because it’s a nonprofit,” West said. “A dance studio is not a huge moneymaker for an investor buying a building.”

AAMC board member Andrea Mazzarella suggested West buy the building, an utterly laugh-out-loud idea considering West was working two jobs (still is), living in an apartment, and owned almost nothing save the 1999 Honda Civic that got her around town. Six months later, West, Mazzarella and her mother, Nancy Mazzarella-Tisch (the latter two act as silent partners), signed the papers to buy the place.

“We just put our heads together and rallied a ton of community support,” West said. “We connected with a banker.… I knew his family. I knew our real estate agent…. It was a very small-town endeavor where everybody knew each other and we all kind of pulled together to be able to make it happen.”

You could say it hasn’t been easy, and that’s true. But at times it’s also been, if not easy, remarkably fortuitous. The first building completed after Astoria’s devastating fire of 1922, the Odd Fellows Building had been neglected over the decades. A winter storm in 2007 took out nearly a quarter of the roof and left behind significant water damage – all too visible in the ballroom. Even today, tenants are accustomed to “running around with buckets during the rainy season” – and when on the coast is it not?

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But only two years after West and her partners took over, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded them $150,000 from its Main Street Campaign to restore and weatherize the building’s historic façade and windows.  

“I literally fell on the ground,” West recalled. “We were one of 20 cities across the country that were chosen for what they call ‘Vote Your Main Street.’ When we were being considered for the running, I looked at the list and I thought, oh, my god. It was Austin, Texas; Seattle, Washington; Los Angeles. I mean, these huge cities that I just  thought, we’re not going to have a chance. There was only one city that was smaller than us.”

The 2019 month-long campaign hosted by the National Trust invited the public to vote for their favorite preservation project in cities across the country. The 11 projects receiving the most votes would share in $2 million funded by American Express. “We got over 90,000 votes for the Odd Fellows Building — third place — in one month. Wow.”

That money paid for repair of the building’s nine Italianate windows, some broken, some boarded over, as well as repairing the building’s concrete exterior. Then came a grant from the State Historic Preservation Office for $20,000 and another for $10,000 from the Kinsman Foundation.

“The last piece of it was we got a phone call, and it was someone from the National Trust and they said, ‘How would you like free paint from Benjamin Moore for your building?’  And I said, ‘Are you kidding, free paint?’ We were very close to running out of money. We were chosen along with the Women’s Building in San Francisco. It was such an honor.”

Six tenants make their home inside the concrete walls of the Odd Fellows Building, now painted purple, with berry red, dark lilac, white and gray trim. But it is best known as the home of the AAMC, where schedules list classes and workshops by nearly 40 instructors in ballet, tango, belly dancing, hula, hip hop, contra, tap, salsa, qigong, yoga, poi, pole, twerk, and Zumba, along with a long list of others, both the commonly known and obscure.        

“Jessamyn is very involved in the community; she is a collaborator for sure,” said Julie Kovatch, who is both an AAMC student and instructor. Kovatch moved to Astoria in 2016 from Billings, Mont., where she performed with a troupe of belly dancers. It was one of at least four troupes there and “very competitive, really cutthroat,” Kovatch said.

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Jessamyn West says one of her favorite things is seeing people walk into the ballroom for the first time. “Oftentimes, it’s the same reaction I had; your breath is just taken away that a space like that exists. It’s just grand, a magnificent space.” Photo courtesy: Astoria Arts and Movement Center
Jessamyn West says one of her favorite things is seeing people walk into the ballroom for the first time. “Oftentimes, it’s the same reaction I had; your breath is just taken away that a space like that exists. It’s just grand, a magnificent space.” Photo courtesy: Astoria Arts and Movement Center

“Jessamyn was so welcoming and so inclusive. She knew I had taught dance in Billings, and she was like, ‘Let’s get you a night.’ I said ‘What? I’m not competing?’ It blew my mind that she was so inclusive of giving more people an opportunity to teach what they know and share with the community. It still blows my mind. If there is a way to help the community through movement, she’ll always offer up opportunities. She makes it possible for people to gather in the spirit of art and movement.”

Dance student and massage therapist Cameron Wagner has been taking classes from AAMC since it opened and recalls dancing in the Odd Fellows ballroom when it was a ballet school. “I love that building and I was very excited when Jessamyn first secured the lease there,” Wagner said. “I see the Movement Center as being a place of inclusivity where it is welcoming to everyone, and that includes all ages and identities and physicalities. It’s a place where we can all go to express ourselves. And it’s affordable … accessible to all incomes.”

Cost was one of the reasons West chose to make AAMC a nonprofit.

“We really wanted to reach everybody in the community,” West said. “We didn’t want to put up any kind of financial barriers’’ necessitated by running the dance studio as a business and paying rent, utilities, and insurance. Instructors at AAMC pay a flat fee of $15 per hour to rent the space; the class fee to their students is up to them. “Some of our classes are as inexpensive as $5 a class.”

No doubt many of the students who come to the Odd Fellows ballroom do so because they want to move, to dance, and here they can afford to. Maybe some come just because the 4,000-square-foot ballroom with its old hardwood floors, lofty ceilings, and arched Italianate windows is a pretty awesome place to be.

Benedetto DeFrancisco, who teaches a class combining yoga, qigong, and sound, calls it magical.  “When I walk into the Movement Center, it feels like I am stepping into a timeless space,” DeFranscisco said. “There is a certain energy. There are these old,  massive glass windows that open with a little crank. There is still a sense of privacy, but they let the natural light come in. It feels like a castle in the clouds, so safe and welcoming.”  

And that may be as apt a description as there is for a perpetually uprooted nonprofit finding a home in a neglected old building designed purely for gathering.  Even fated, some might say.

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“Fraternal lodges were for socialization, a way for immigrants to learn about the U.S. and try to fit in, and we’ve lost that,” said John Goodenberger, the Astoria city historian.      

“The Movement Center offers a different opportunity with some of the same benefits. That is, it offers community. I think they have really kept a local perspective in owning that building, making sure it welcomes the locals and the locals feel welcome.”  

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Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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One Response

  1. It’s people like Jessamyn West, Andrea Mazzanella, and Nancy Mazarella-Tisch who make Astoria such a special place. Thanks to all who participated to help revive the old Odd Fellows building.

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