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


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Former LA Scottish Rite Cathedral Rises Again, At Last

Photo: Elizabeth Daniels for 'Curbed'

Someone cleverer than I am once opined the sentiment that he studied old buildings because he'd rather learn from those who built civilization than those who tore it down. 

Frank Lloyd Wright famously wrote, "Noble life demands a noble architecture for noble uses of noble men. Lack of culture means what it has always meant: ignoble civilization and therefore imminent downfall." Freemasons of the 20th century certainly agreed with that sentiment. It could be argued that we kicked it off with a bang in the late 1890s with the Chicago Masonic Temple, which was the tallest building in the world for the moment. We kept at it up into the 1960s, which was maybe the sputtering end of the era when we still Thought Big, dreamed great dreams, and put our money where our dreams were.

Thursday's edition of Time Out Los Angeles featured a story about another treasure of our fraternity lost to us, but saved and preserved by the outside world: the former Scottish Rite Cathedral of the Los Angeles Valley.

The Cathedral originally opened in 1961, and was designed by famed mid-century LA architect Millard Sheets. It eventually became home to more than 11,000 Scottish Rite Masons by 1974. Almost ironically, it closed for all intents and purposes in 1994 - perhaps appropriately just 33 years after it opened. It was a victim of plunging membership, finances, Baby Boomer demographics, the changing American culture, NIMBY neighbors, and zoning regulations.

After its closure, the building sat almost entirely abandoned for almost two decades, ignominiously surrounded by a chain link fence. The unsympathetic neighborhood groups fought any plans that would bring in crowds, claiming potential noise and parking problems. As a result, the Scottish Rite was stuck with a massive, empty facility that did nothing but cost money just to keep it from crumbling. Nevertheless, they held on, hoping for a buyer. 

Finally, in 2013 the Maurice and Paul Marciano Art Foundation bought the property from the Rite for $8 million, according to public title documents. The Marcianos are co-founders of Guess Jeans. (Can you get any more Masonically esoteric-looking than their logo?) The pair actually were a blessing to all parties involved: they had very deep pockets, no intention of razing it, and a plan that would shut up the neighborhood complainers. It was to become a museum for the Marcianos' massive private collection of modern art.

That was almost two years ago. The museum opened this week for a sneak preview for the world's press and art critics, and area Freemasons will have the opportunity to at last get inside of the Cathedral that their fathers and grandfathers once believed in and sacrificed to erect for them a half century ago.

Photo: Michael Juliano

From Contemporary art and Freemasonry collide at the new Marciano Art Foundation by Michael Juliano:
The Marciano Art Foundation has taken over an old Masonic temple on Wilshire Boulevard and turned it into a massive contemporary art museum, due to open on May 25. Though it's mainly a means for Guess co-founders Maurice and Paul Marciano to store and show off their private collection, the brothers also intend for the space to be an artist's playground. In turn, they've birthed a museum that balances traditional white-walled gallery spaces with cavernous halls whose only limitation is an artist's creativity.
Architect Kulapat Yantrasast set out to take something secretive—the members-only Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, a Millard Sheets structure that dates back to 1961—and repurpose it for the public. But he also made sure to maintain the integrity of the Masonic culture, and the fraternal order's familiar iconography is still all over the space, including in a dedicated archive that showcases all sorts of exotic costumes.

The Marciano Art Foundation, located at 4357 Wilshire Boulevard, is open Thursday through Saturday. Admission is free, though timed tickets are required and are available a month in advance.

In stark contrast to the modern surroundings and occasionally bizarre art installations, the Marcianos have thoughtfully reserved a quiet room that tastefully displays numerous aprons, jewels, and other ephemera of the fraternity left behind when the Valley walked away in the 1990s.

Photo: Michael Juliano

A notebook compiled at the time of its groundbreaking festivities on January 16th, 1960 through its completion the next year, with descriptions of many of the Cathedral's paintings and details, may be found HERE. On that January day it was estimated that 500 Masons were on hand. 

Today, the LA Valley has a total of just about 1,000 members, less than 10% of their 1974 peak.

When Millard Sheets first sat down to dinner at the invitation of the Valley's building committee in 1959, he somewhat prophetically recalled asking them, "Why do you think you need a temple? Maybe the idea of Masonry isn't even practical today." Since he knew almost nothing about the fraternity at the time, he asked them 25 questions that would help to guide his ultimate Cathedral designs, which included the building itself, as well as the sculptures and mosaics that combine to make it so distinctive even today with its new owners.

From an extensive recorded interview with the architect in 1977:
They had worked terribly hard on all of the questions and had, I thought, some imaginative answers. They were not in any way tying me or any other designer down, but they had some very good thoughts about the new relationship of Masonry to society and why they felt this was an important time to build the temple and why they wanted to truly represent the spirit of Masonry. So without further ado, I made many sketches, I think three different concepts, which I presented to a smaller committee that they had decided would be easier to operate with. I made the presentation of these three different concepts, from which they selected one. It was the one that we finally followed, but it grew considerably in the development, as most of these kinds of things do, both in character and in detail.

Well, I think I suggested to you that I was surprised by the tremendous number of things that had to be incorporated in this temple. First of all, the upper degrees of Masonry are given in an auditorium, and they are given in the form of plays. They have incredible costumes and magnificent productions of the basic concepts that are ethical and have at heart a religious depth, and they draw from many religions, as far as I understand. I'm not a Mason, but I do feel that it's a tremendous attempt toward the freedom of man as an individual, and the rights of man as an individual, and respect for various races and creeds. I won't say this is always obtained, but certainly that's been the spirit. They felt that they wanted to depict this in every form. That's the reason there's so much decoration involved in the temple.
Photo: Elizabeth Daniels for 'Curbed LA'

The huge mosaic on the exterior east end of the temple at that time was the largest mosaic I'd ever made. It starts out with the builders of the temple from the days of Jerusalem, and King Solomon, who built the temple, and Babylon. Then it jumps up to the Persian emperor, Zerubabel. I showed the importance of [Giuseppe] Garibaldi, the Mason who broke away from the Roman Catholic church because of what he felt was its limitations and dogmatism. Then there is King Edward VII in his Masonic regalia as one of the great grand masters. We had the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which is part of the King Edward section. I think the final part of that mosaic shows the first grand master of California in his full regalia being invested in Sacramento. It's a kind of historical thing going way back to the ancient temple builders and coming right up through to actual California history, which the California sun at the top symbolizes.
 Photo: Elizabeth Daniels for 'Curbed LA'

...the concept of the sculpture along the south facade, which I worked in collaboration with Albert Stewart to design, and then he made all of the models — it seems to me there were eighty scale models, which I took to Rome and had carved by a very fine sculptor in solid travertine. These were, of course, eventually sent back and placed on the facade. And here again are all of the temple builders, each one representing a special builder going back to ancient Egypt and coming on through the time of King Solomon and the Persian emperor, up to and including George Washington. There are also Albert Pike, who was one of the very great men in the early part of the twentieth century or latter part of the nineteenth century, and Christopher Wren, who built the great cathedrals in England. The two St. Johns were interesting, because they were said to be patron saints, and they depicted two different meanings entirely. Then there's the Gothic builder, so it symbolizes the whole meaning of the building of the temple.

The double-headed eagle, which was the symbol for the Scottish Rite, Albert Stewart designed, and I think it makes a stunning logo. We used it in four spots on the temple. Then all of the inscriptions which we did were carved in travertine, and the different insignias of the degrees are all parts of the actual rites themselves. On the inside, there are several sculptured and mosaic decorations on the interior of the auditorium.

 The History of California Freemasonry mosaic by Millard Sheets. 
Now, sadly, removed during the building's most recent repurposing.
Photo: Irwin Miller for 'Curbed LA'
 There's a large mural depicting the history of Masonry in California, starting with the first houses which were erected by Masons. It's all involved, and I can't remember all the details. There's also a large mural in the main reading room off the main library, which was not symbolic. It was the kind of thing I liked to do, a very interesting mood of some ancient trees, and it's a totally different type of mural. Then I did murals in the dining room. The temple is like a city. It has a huge auditorium where they hold performances for the degree. Then there are four lodge rooms upstairs, where the various blue lodges meet to give the lower degrees. There is a recreational floor that has nothing but library facilities and pool tables and a combination of reading room and card room. There is a very fine library, which we had a lot of fun designing. There are, of course, the locker rooms and all of the other things that make it a tremendous, big building. It's four stories above ground and one below. There is a huge dining room on the top floor that seats 1,500 people, where you get an excellent view of the city. 

Oral histories are always fascinating. Sheets later designed a building for Notre Dame University. In that same set of interviews, he recalled his initial meeting on that new project and was concerned his previous work for Freemasonry might pose a conflict for his new Catholic clients:
"Well," I said, "now there's one other thing I'd like to discuss with you before I start home and get into this thing. I am not a Roman Catholic. I have no prejudice whatsoever toward any religion or any faith or any race, but I'm not a Roman Catholic, and on top of that I've just finished a huge Scottish Rite cathedral, a Masonic temple, in Los Angeles. I just don't want to go on under any false colors. You know, I'm not a Mason, and I'm not a Catholic. Now, if these things don't interfere, that's fine." Father Hesburgh laughed — he just laughed out loud — and he said, "Well, you know, the Masons and the Catholics used to fight a little but, what the hell. I did a lot of research on you, I was in California about four months ago doing a Catholic motion picture, and while I was out there I did a lot of research on you, and I knew you were building that thing. There's just one promise that I want you to make: that is, that someday, in my street clothes, you'll take me through it." [laughter] I'm delighted — and forget it. I want to tell you something: Even if I have to get an infidel, I'm going to get who I want to do this job. And you're my infidel."
Today, the Los Angeles Valley of the Scottish Rite meets in more humble surroundings, at the Santa Monica Masonic Center, 926 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, California. 

Nevertheless, their once proud landmark Cathedral still stands across town, still shines, and still dazzles as a noble achievement. Even if only preserved by others.


  1. I remember when they were selling it some Brothers in Facebook groups cheekily speculated that it might be turned into an Olive Garden restaurant. So even if it is "occasionally bizarre" this result would indeed seem to be a most welcome fate!

  2. There are those who see the passing and repurposing of Masonic buildings as a tragedy: I am not one of them. I have seen bricks and mortar dissolve the more important bonds we all heard referenced when receiving our final working tools within too many Lodges. BUT I do believe that there is virtue in preserving select buildings as a reminder of who we are, and who we have been..., The Grand Lodges of Pennsylvania and New York, the Scottish Rite Cathedral of Indianapolis, the Scottish Rite Temple in Guthrie, Oklahoma, the George Washington National Masonic Memorial, and a few others. Our numbers have diminished, but are stabilizing. Will we come together to select those structures worth preserving, and marshall our united forces to see that they endure? I wonder...


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