(This column appeared in Issue 2 Autumn 2008 of the Journal of the Masonic Society)
Sixty years ago, a broken window would get a kid in serious trouble. Neighbors would round up the miscreant and there would be a price to pay for causing the damage. But the proliferation of broken windows, with no consequences for the offenders, signals a lack of control, an erosion of caring, and a devastating loss of pride.
Criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling developed the `broken windows’ thesis to explain the growth of crime and decay in urban areas that are plagued by vandalism and unkempt property. The theory goes that if a building has broken windows, graffiti on the walls and trash in the foyer, it encourages – nay, invites – vandalism, crime and further deterioration. If the landlord doesn’t fix the problem immediately, he’s a big part of the problem, because he is providing an atmosphere of decay for the whole neighborhood, whose inhabitants will come to believe their community is a lost cause.
I contend that the same theory can be applied to our aging, decaying Masonic buildings. The more we neglect our Temples on the outside, the more they rot spiritually on the inside, spiraling into lethargy and failure. One of the most misunderstood phrases in Masonry is that the fraternity regards the internal and not the external qualifications of a man, and we’ve gone on to believe it about our Temples. The truth is that what is on the outside is a reflection of what goes on inside—both in men and in buildings. We’ve been breaking our own windows. And it’s high time we got a whuppin’ for it.
In 1892, the Freemasons of Chicago built the tallest skyscraper in the world, twenty-two stories high, and it remained the tallest building in Chicago for more than thirty years. In 1926 the Masons of Detroit opened the largest Masonic building in the world, home to almost thirty different Masonic bodies, with room for a total of fifty. It had more than a thousand rooms, three auditoriums including one that seated 4,100 people, restaurants, ballrooms, hotel rooms, a barber shop, even an indoor pool. They believed “build it and they will come.” They donated lavishly to their fraternity and constructed splendid Temples for us, designed to last for generations as proud symbols of Freemasonry. And they spent lots of their own money, at a time when there were no tax incentives to do so; nor were there social safety nets for their retirements. Times were tough, yet they still gave much in both time and treasure to Freemasonry for these places we now often treat with such appalling neglect. What our forefathers constructed for the Ages, many now scornfully dismiss as white elephants.
In the effort to be politically correct, we don’t call them Temples anymore, but our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers sure did. These were Temples to the ideals of Freemasonry. Great things went on inside of them, and the community knew who and what the Freemasons were and what they stood for. The Masonic Temple was vital to a community. Balls were held there. Political debates were held there. Visiting celebrities and luminaries were feted there. Immigrant citizens were sworn in there. Today, thousands of people drive past our faceless buildings and never know what they are.
Freemasonry is not a building, and lodges can meet anywhere, but these Temples are a part of our heritage. They are priceless, irreplaceable treasures. And we throw them away at our own peril. The least we can do is protect the best of them until a new generation comes along that cherishes them as our grandfathers did. But as every year ticks by and one more Temple goes away, we will never get them back. And we certainly won’t ever have the vision—or the guts—to build another. When new men see these tumble down places, so obviously uncared for by our own members, why would they want to join us? And if they do join and are treated like bratty interlopers for daring to suggest spending any money to clean up the joint, they won’t come back.
My own lodge’s original three-story brick building (sold far below fair market value fifteen years ago) was entirely financed by one individual brother’s gift in 1907 of what would today amount to almost $700,000. We stopped asking our members for money for our own Temples long ago in favor of our Masonic Homes, the Shrine hospitals, the Dyslexic Centers, the CHIPs programs, the York Rite charities, and more. But as wonderful as those programs are, we are making a big mistake if every penny we have goes into them.
We don’t ask anymore. We don’t ask ourselves to step up to the plate to collect $2000 for carpeting, or $4000 for a furnace, or $10,000 for a parking lot, or a million for a new building. Churches do, and so do every other kind of community organization, from YMCAs to country clubs. So did Lodges, once.
Don’t misunderstand—not every clapboard pigeon roost from the 1920s necessarily needs to be preserved, any more than my rural uncle’s outhouse from the same era. One neighbor’s historic landmark is another’s ramshackle eyesore. In most cases, we really do have too many lodge buildings. We don’t walk or ride a horse to the Stated Meeting anymore, so we no longer need a lodge every five miles as the crow flies. It is a far better use of our resources for there to be many smaller lodges that meet in one common Temple.
If we don’t present a dignified face to the outside world and provide meeting places that our old and new members are proud of, we are slitting our own throats. Better for us to meet in a hotel ballroom than in a fallen-down barn of a place that we fail to maintain. At least a hotel will keep it clean, repaired, climate-controlled and well lit. But if we have any desire to really rebuild this fraternity, our Temples need to regain their place at the center of our communities, as they were 60, 80 and a hundred years ago. They need to be places we want to come to, and bring our friends and families to. They need to be comfortable and inviting, places where brethren want to congregate before and after meetings, instead of eating, meeting and fleeing from.
That isn’t going to happen with $45 annual dues and no strategic financial planning for the future.