Looking big

When Ashland was still young in 1879, civic leaders who were members of fraternal organizations constructed grand buildings to let everyone know that permanent roots were being laid down and people intended to stay.

That year, after a devastating fire destroyed the wood structures along the Plaza, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Masons erected storied brick structures on N. Main Street to meet, socialize and sell goods.

The Masonic Lodge building rose from the ashes as a two-story colonial with spaced arched windows and a pedimented cornice. The contractor who laid the cornerstone was L.S.P. Marsh, who also was the builder of the Jacksonville Courthouse. The structure overlooked what was even then called the Plaza, a dirt turnaround with hitching posts.

Despite the dusty landscape, the building was completed in time for President Rutherford B. Hayes and his teetotalling wife, nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy," to see. They arrived in Ashland in a stagecoach pulled by six horses on Sept. 27, 1880. The couple stood with another visitor, Civil War general William T. Sherman, under an arch that declared, "Industry, Education, Temperance."

A photograph dated in the mid-1880s shows other stagecoaches stopped in front of the Masonic building at 25 N. Main St. Then, the ground floor housed a post office, real estate office and a drug store.

Coaches, wagons and horses brought mail, goods and people over the steep Siskiyou Mountains before the north-south railroad was completed in 1887, according to Joe Peterson's book "Images of America: Ashland." Lurking in the shadows were highwaymen, including the fabled Black Bart, who took advantage of the slow-moving wagons.

In 1909, the Masonic building was expanded and remodeled. A story in the Ashland Daily Tidings reported that the second floor contained a larger main lodge room, a banquet room and anterooms.

Two recesses were constructed in 1913 to flank a central stairwell that lead to the lodge, according to research conducted by George Kramer, an Ashland historian and preservation specialist. Also that year, large plate-glass windows were installed underneath prismatic-glass transom bands to modernized the original storefronts.

In 1928, the Plaza Café and the Ashland branch of the post office moved in and proved to be long, loyal tenants.

In a still-exuberant 1929, before the stock market crash, a third floor was added to the building, making it overshadow most of the others on the street.

During the "Happy Days" of the 1950s, the enduring Plaza Café added a neon sign and resurfaced the building exterior in course stone veneer. In 1954, the post office moved out and slowly stores along Main Street were vacated and windows boarded up.

After 1966, when cars were bypassing Ashland by taking the new Interstate 5, desperate downtown landlords offered inexpensive rents to artists and craftspeople to encourage them to open studios and shops.

An unartsy insurance company had been occupying the Plaza Café space just before Gold & Gems Fine Jewelry store opened its doors here in 1982.

In the beginning, jewelry store owner Richard Hansen and his family, including teenage son, Ron, occupied a 400-square-foot space in the front of the building. Ron Hansen recalls that it was just large enough for a few small cases, a counter and a workshop area.

Over time, the business grew and the Hansens acquire more space until the store now stretches across 2,400 square feet, from the sidewalk on N. Main Street to the back of the building on Calle Guanajuato.

Inside, the family still makes custom design jewelry and manufactures pieces, but they also operate one of the largest independent jewelry websites, www.GoldAndGems.com.

Building neighbors include Enoteca by Eden Vale wine bar, Thread Hysteria women's clothing and the Loft Brasserie and Bar.

"We have experienced many setbacks over the years," says Ron Hansen. "Several recessions, the Plaza flood of 1997 and a fire (in March 2012), just to name a few."

Nonetheless, Hansen says he loves doing business on this spot. "I feel a powerful sense of history here and I believe we have properly carried on the craftsman tradition of the Ashland Plaza."

In 1992, the U.S. Department of the Interior placed the Masonic building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hansen, 45, who began stringing pearls and doing basic polishing three decades ago in this shop, looks out the window.

"I often imagine the horses and carriages bumping around the Plaza, and children wading knee deep in Ashland Creek," he says. "I've spent my life within these walls. I can't imagine a better place to do business."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.

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