"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Tale of a Temple

Regular readers here know that while I fully understand that Masons can certainly meet in high hills and low vales, or pup tents for that matter, if given a choice I prefer the places we built when we dreamed bigger. I have never made a secret of my devotion to protecting and preserving our Masonic architectural history and its place in our communities, large and small, all over the country and the world. Over and over, we see the proud Temples of our past lost or voluntarily given up, out of expediency or exhaustion or circumstances or more often, simple failure to adequately plan for the future. All too often, we come to regard these priceless treasures as white elephants. 

Well, even when we don't recognize the value and specialness that our Temples have, others do occasionally. Just by accident late last night, I stumbled upon an entry on the National Register of Historic Places website for an addition to their list of notable sites. It was for what is now the Prince Hall Temple of Central Lodge No. 1 and several others of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Indiana, at the corner of 22nd Street and Central Avenue in Indianapolis. It was officially added to the Register this year.

I have spent some time in this building over the years. Just a few weeks after I was raised as a Master Mason, I attended the first joint gathering of Masons from the Prince Hall lodges in Indiana and the Grand Lodge of Indiana F&AM, just under a year after mutual recognition happened. As a brand new member, I had no idea of the long history between the two bodies, so I had no preconceived notions about segregation between us that had just finally ended. It was just a new Masonic experience for me, and an exciting one, as scores of Masons jammed into the lodge - I was later told close to 200. I was a little nervous, too, as it was my first meeting as a Master Mason. Despite the enormous crowd, the Deacons were indeed asked to purge the lodge. With that assembly, it was a daunting task. When the JD got to me, naturally, I guessed wrong and blew the word. He looked as nervous as I did. "No," he whispered, fiercely shaking his head. "The OTHER one!"

Not long after that, my lodge started taking part in the Indianapolis Prince Hall's annual Thanksgiving meal preparation and delivery program for hundreds of shut-in, lonely, or just plain hungry folks all over the city. Every year, we wound up serving up over a thousand meals, and it took quite a platoon of dedicated cooks, servers, packers, drivers, and phone bank volunteers. But between sacking up meals or running out the door with an armload of to-go boxes, I always took a moment to climb the stairs up from the basement to the lodge room, just to see it again.

In addition to the dinners we dropped off at homes were many local neighbors around the lodge who came walking in to pick up a dinner, or to pull up a chair and eat there in the dining room amid the madness of cooking, dishing up, packing, and shouting out addresses to waiting drivers. We always had tremendous brotherhood and developed great friendships. Moreover, it was clear just what an important part of the surrounding community that lodge still was, then more than 80 years after it was built. 

It was about three years after I attended that first meeting that I learned Central Lodge's building had originally belonged to Oriental Lodge 500 of the Grand Lodge of Indiana. They had given up on that neighborhood in 1983 and sold it to the Prince Hall brethren who own it today.

As I say, we don't always recognize the value of our treasures to us, or maybe more important, to the community in which we reside. If you want to read something interesting, the intricately detailed survey by the National Parks Service for the National Register can be read here:

There are many photos at the very end of the report, but take the time to scroll through the whole thing. It's long, and you can skip the minutiae of the brick composition or the roof construction. But slow down at the details of the lodge room, or the social room, or the inclusion of an apartment for a caretaker for the building. Note the attention to the details on the exterior to mimic Islamic designs of the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. Take note that Oriental's members used the premiere architectural firm in the city, Rubush & Hunter, who designed the big Indianapolis Masonic Temple downtown, along with the old City Hall - in addition to the services of two other major firms at the same time. That's because the principal partners of all three top-drawer firms were all members of Oriental Lodge. Their temple was completed in 1916 and was a jewel of Indiana Masonry. 

Oriental Lodge had been chartered in 1875, and it was a prestigious lodge. In 1904, the Vice-President of the United States under Teddy Roosevelt, Charles W. Fairbanks, became a member (making them one of the only Masonic president/vice-president teams in US history). By 1912, the lodge had 600 members, and just seven years later, it had swollen to 900. By its 50th anniversary in 1925, the lodge had 1,100 on its rolls, and 22nd and Central Avenue was a very hot neighborhood.

After WWII, white families started fleeing to the suburbs, a story that can be told and retold in almost any major or minor city in the US. As the Register's survey clinically puts it, 
"the near-northside neighborhood, an affluent white residential area in the early 20th century, changed in its economic and demographic characteristics, as white residents left, large houses were converted to multiple low rent apartments to respond to an under-supply of affordable housing, and African-American residents moved into the area after forcible segregation ended in the 1960s. As the economic character of the neighborhood declined, houses were condemned and demolished. In 1983, the Oriental Lodge sold their building to the Prince Hall Masonic Temple Association, Inc., which was looking for a Masonic facility located near the homes of many of the members of its lodges and chapters. Eventually, the Oriental Lodge constructed a new building on W. 46th Street in Indianapolis and merged with a Westside lodge, the Evergreen Lodge."
Indeed it did. The newly merged Evergreen-Oriental Lodge 500 moved away and built a less ostentatious hall. The lodge kept its original, older number with its dual name, and its storied past clung on that way for another 33 years. But this year, another struggling lodge decided it couldn't maintain itself and merged into Evergreen-Oriental, shucking all of their names and numbers for a new identity altogether, Northwest Lodge 770. The central role of Oriental 500 in the city's life has been paved over and it has been reduced to a couple of paragraphs in the new lodge's history somewhere, if someone is keeping it (I can't even find a web page or a Facebook page for them). Their original number was then immediately handed over to a completely different, already existing lodge, Speedway 729 - now Speedway 500 - as a publicity stunt to tie in to the annual Indianapolis 500 race. Such is the age in which we now sadly find ourselves that we cast aside two centuries of history, traditions, rules, and jurisprudence for a cute tie-in. We weren't even innovative about it - the Moose Lodge in that neighborhood did the same thing decades ago.

Not every lodge is destined to live forever. Indeed, lodges have life spans, and some are longer than others. So, too, do buildings. But Masonic temples are similar in many ways to churches in the importance they can take on in generations of families and in communities. Men often lament that their fathers or grandfathers, or GREAT-grandfathers were raised on that same floor. So, before we just shove them out the porthole into the ocean of redevelopment and "progress" for a little ready cash, we have a duty to think long and hard first, and to exhaust every possible alternative before giving up. Because only rarely is someone standing there in the right moment to pick up where we leave off and make it keep on living and contributing to the neighborhood. That doesn't happen very often. 

In Oriental's case, it did. Indeed, out of the fourteen purpose-built neighborhood Masonic buildings in the city limits of Indianapolis, outside of immediately downtown, that were standing a century ago, Central Lodge No. 1 today is the only Masonic building left that has been continuously built, owned, and operated by Freemasons. Their magnificent temple in 1983 became the first Prince Hall building in Indianapolis that had been specifically designed as a Masonic space since their grand lodge's formation back in 1856. In addition to Central Lodge 1, the following Masonic organizations all meet in that same temple: Waterford 13, Trinity 18, Sumner A. Furniss 61 lodges; Constantine Consistory 25 Scottish Rite; Union 1 OES Chapter; Sumner A. Furniss Assembly 32 of the Order of the Golden Circle; and the York Rite bodies of Cyrus Chapter 1 Royal Arch Masons, John C. Dawson 22 Council of Royal and Select Masters, and Gethsemane Commandery 37 Knights Templar. 

It can be a very busy place.

It is an interesting footnote to this little story that the neighborhood around the temple dramatically changed in the 50s and 60s from a predominantly white to a predominantly black one. The usual array of uncaring absentee landlords bought up houses and subdivided many of them, and allowed much of the neighborhood to decay. It was fortunate in one respect by having a supermarket across the street, but it and the temple were lonely outposts of any shred of prosperity. However, today, gentrification from the downtown area is spreading out. The area around the lodge has been rebranded as Fall Creek Place, and there are scores of new, modern homes clustered around it, with what is now a quite diverse population (almost bitterly ironic given social history, since these nice, new ones are now unattainable by the former residents they supplanted). A prominent Masonic Temple anchoring the neighborhood could very well attract a new wave of men seeking membership there. In fact, the Prince Hall Eastern Star chapters are extremely active and popular, as well. So, our PHA brethren could turn out to be perfectly placed beneficiaries of future growth in a neighborhood we gave up on a generation ago.


  1. This account brought back so many great memories. I was a member of Oriental Chapter, Order of DeMolay, which met in that building. The night I walked in for the first time there was a wiry "old guy" playing table tennis with a DeMolay. The young DeMolay, a pretty good player, was losing badly. Turns out the "old guy" was Jimmy McClure, former world table tennis champion. He was Chapter Dad and also a Past Master of Oriental — No Charles W. Fairbanks but another famous member. I am so grateful the building lives on. Thanks for the post.

  2. Speak of the devil, this just came today from my Mother lodge:

    Broad Ripple Lodge #643 has been cordially and fraternally invited to attend Prince Hall Masons of Central District #1's annual St John Table Lodge held at; 2201 N. Central Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46205, beginning at 3:00 PM. Our Prince Hall Brethren will be serving dinner that evening and have asked for an RSVP form us so the can properly prepare. All Master Masons are welcome to attend. I have been informed that proper Masonic dress will be white gloves and aprons.

    Anyone who would like to attend should RSVP to myself directly before tomorrow afternoon. You can email me at jmschererbrlodge@gmail.com or by phone...

    Sincerely and Fraternally,

    J. Matthew Scherer P.M.
    Worshipful Master

  3. Thank you Worshipful Master Scherer for your attendance. I hope that you enjoyed yourself.


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