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Friday, November 01, 2019

Soaring Taxes Force Calgary's Freemasons Hall Up For Sale

Calgary, Canada's historic 1928 downtown Freemasons Hall at 330 12th Avenue SW has officially gone up for sale. According to an article on the Real Estate News Exchange, the brethren can no longer afford the crippling taxes on the property. 

The eventual loss of this central temple will be a massive upheaval for Calgary's Masons. Nine lodges currently meet in Freemasons Hall's Blue Lodge Room and Red Lodge Room: Bow River 1; Perfection 9; Ashlar 28; Mount Lebanon 54; Zetland 83; Concord 124; Lodge Renefrew 134; and Calgary 230. The Calgary Valley of the Scottish Rite, and the Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star are based here. In addition, York Rite bodies meet in the upstairs Red Room. A large banquet hall in the basement can accommodate 300 people.

It was originally the home of the Grand Lodge AF&AM of Alberta's offices and library, but they moved out several years ago.

Blue Lodge Room
Red Lodge Room

Hand-painted pipes on the Blue Room's Casavent organ

Property taxes on the Calgary Freemasons Hall have skyrocketed - from CA$93,622 in 2015 to CA$158,150 in 2019. That's nearly a 70% increase in only four years, just for taxes alone. In 2020 it is expected to rise to CA$188,000. 

Brethren who live in municipalities, states, or countries where Masonic buildings are tax exempt never give these kinds of issues a second thought, but it's a very serious consideration for countless other lodges around the world. Calgary tax officials have valued the building at CA$8 million, but all of us know from long, bitter experience that it won't actually sell for that. Such is the voodoo of tax assessors.

In an article from the Calgary Herald last year, local councilman Jeromy Farkas cited the Masonic temple as a prime example of out of control taxing of large, historic properties:
Coun. Jeromy Farkas, who has advocated for lower property taxes since he was elected to council last fall, said the Freemasons Hall is yet another example of a commercial property tax burden that is spiralling out of control.
“It would be such a shame to have a historic building like this replaced by another highrise,” Farkas said.
“This is another key organization that is being overburdened by rising taxes, an important part of our city’s can-do history.”
Farkas says he wants to work closely with the Freemasons to see what their options are in terms of a tax exemption.
One possibility, he explained, would be to change their designation from Masonic Temple to Masonic Museum.
But Raykhlin said that could introduce a whole new set of administrative and financial challenges.
“It means we have to hire a tour guide, a security guard, and handle all the administration connected with actually being a museum.”
As sad as losing this temple will be when and if it sells, it's even sadder that it is unlikely to be replaced with a facility its equal. With extremely rare exceptions, Freemasons no longer build significant Masonic buildings anymore. Our days of proudly erecting landmark buildings that are worth preserving a century later are long gone. So when the fraternity gives these up, they are gone forever. That's practical in these days of shrinking membership, I know. But I don't think like an accountant, and never have. Economical steel pole barns in remote soybean fields have their uses, but not as Masonic temples that were designed to be bold, impressive, and at the center of their communities.

As for the demographics of the area around Calgary, my friend WB Mike Bayrak writes, "Alberta continues to boast the youngest population per capita in Canada and I believe North America as well. Edmonton has youngest per capita in Alberta. You’d think it was ripe for new members..." 

Yes, you'd think. But not if we don't get busy and start telling our story to the public with greater insistency.  As each generation slides farther and farther from any shared cultural knowledge of who and what the Freemasons are, our job is harder than ever before because we have to remind the public on a regular basis. 

Calgary is a case in point. When their Freemasons Hall was built, the mayor was a Mason, countless local officials and community leaders were Masons, and so was a measurable proportion of the population. Now, I'll guarantee you that most mayors,  city councils, and everyone in tax assessors' offices wouldn't have the slightest idea who the Masons are without resorting to Wikipedia. 

That's nobody's fault but our own.

UPDATE 11/2/2019: 
I am informed that my original last statement of opinion unfairly characterized Calgary's elected officials, who have apparently been quite sympathetic to the plight of the Masons and Freemasons Hall for several years and made suggestions to assist any way they could under the current laws and tax code. The hall did actually receive a substantial tax credit in 2018 because of that help. As a result, I have slightly altered my wording in the last paragraph to make it more generalized. 
However, as the quote from Jeromy Farkas above illustrates, the Masons didn't seem interested in actually doing something like reclassifying the hall as a museum and hiring a token museum employee to get a tax break that would have more than offset the expense.
Interestingly, it still doesn't appear that any of those officials mentioned are, in fact, Masons today - which only illustrates the vast difference between now and when it was built in 1928. Like it or not, we have lost our prestige and cachet of the past that once attracted the men who were the movers and shakers in our communities. Today we remain something those modern officials vaguely recall their grandfathers belonging to without seeing any compelling reason or benefit or attraction join themselves. 
And yes, that is our own fault for getting to this point. 

(BTW, I was looking over the Grand Lodge of Alberta's website for information for this story, and came across a listing of their officers and districts. I don't know about anybody else, but I sure wouldn't want to be known as the District Deputy Grand Master of the Dinosaur District. I fact, I'd be hard pressed to want the word 'dinosaur' to appear on a web page about Freemasonry under ANY circumstances. There's also a link to the Dinosaur Schedule. Yes I know it's a local name for the area, but you're just asking for somebody to point you to the nearest tar pit...)


  1. Grand Lodge and the Library moved out of Freemasons' Hall about two years ago.

  2. A few other comments, Naheed Nenshi, Calgary's Mayor is well acquainted with Freemasonry in Calgary. He has visited Freemasons' Hall on a number of Masonic occasions.

    Also, Drumheller is Dinosaur capital of North America, we're proud of our dinosaur heritage and Dinosaur District, even though it would make outsiders frown!

    1. Yeah... Just sayin'. Speaking officially as a 60+ year old fossil myself now, I bristle at such association...

  3. Calgary is not the only situation and a museum need not be the burden suggested. It can be creative and helpful in many ways. Unfortunately those of us who are familiar with successful museums and are Masons are not as involved as could be. In general even the temples with guided tours and exhibits are missing many other opportunities.

    1. I guess that's the part of this story I don't understand, and I admittedly haven't spoken to the principal folks there about it. If they were advised several years ago when the taxes began rising that they could avoid it by reincorporating the building as a museum, why would they not have jumped at it? You hire a part-time employee, open by appointment with limited hours, give yourselves the opportunity to promote the fraternity - and all at a much lower price than a $60,000+ annual tax increase costs (with no end in sight).

      The trouble is that 50 years ago we had brethren who were property managers, lawyers, businessmen and other qualified professionals as members, while today, not so much. And even back then, those men never set up foundations, funds and other responsible methods to fund the futures of these buildings. Most temple associations today are woefully unqualified and incapable of running a large building efficiently and with good fiscal planning. So we lose them, over and over.

  4. The conference of grand masters could easily have created a help committee of experts. The service committee rather than moving from Washington could have connected with many many eager to help historical preservation groups here. It is ultimately a problem of leadership. Every week we decrease in members and resources. Every week.

    1. I agree. But as Brother Peter Thornton opined back in 1992, despite all historic failed examples of Sweden's Charles XII, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler, nine out of ten Freemasons today would STILL attack Moscow.

      In winter.

      And would be absolutely convinced of all of the most idiotic suppositions to do it.


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