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Saturday, April 07, 2018

More Masonic Temples Slip From Our Grasp (Part 1)

When the English essayist John Ruskin wrote his 1849 architectural treatise, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Freemasons all over Britain and America paid especially close attention to him. Ruskin expounded on the substance and purposes of architecture, and how it was directly linked to civilization itself — he was careful to separate 'architecture' from mere ‘building.’ He labeled each broad concept a different ‘lamp,’ providing ‘light’ in various ways: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience. 

In the chapter “The Lamp of Beauty,” he wrote, “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.” Freemasons of an earlier era certainly took his vision to their hearts, and you will find Ruskin widely quoted in Masonic publications, especially starting around 1890 with the beginnings of the 'City Beautiful' movement. I've been quite fond of Ruskin's works since I discovered them in college, and he is eminently quotable. But this is perhaps my favorite of all of his writings, and I have taken it to heart all of my adult life when it comes to saving historic buildings:
"They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate.
"What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death : still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buildings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss we have no right to inflict."

The grandest building boom for Freemasonry all across America was unquestionably between 1900 and 1930. Indeed, in November 1925, the Indiana Freemason magazine observed,
"'From gulf to border and coast to coast the sound of hammer and hoist heralds the progress of Masonry as stately temples, imposing mosques, memorials, clubs, and other buildings grow from architects’ blueprints into complete structures,’ says the Missouri Freemason. Hardly a week goes by that does not see the formation of a new project, the laying of a cornerstone, or witness the dedication of some Masonic building.” 
Many of America's most prominent landmark Masonic buildings have managed to survive a century or longer since their original construction. Most of the enormous and truly landmark ones date from the early 20th century boom period. We have few surviving American examples of very large and impressive Masonic temples from before the dawn of the 1900s,  though there are noteworthy exceptions like Philadelphia. But time has conspired to wreak its inexorable damage from two ends of the spectrum: Masonic membership today is almost one third the size it was in 1929 (3,295,000 vs 1,150,000); AND those buildings are in need of constant updating and high cost repairs. Fewer Masons often translate to mean smaller, cheaper surroundings, unfortunately for those of us who cherish these places and fight to keep them at any cost.

Thankfully, there are visionary people who do not regard our Temples as "white elephants," who see beauty and greatness when all our own members see are expenses and problems. Others increasingly value our treasures when we no longer do. The 1869 former Maryland Grand Lodge Temple on Tremont Street in Baltimore (right) is a magnificent example of a careful developer caring for our temples after we pitch them overboard.

Read about their restoration work HERE.

And the Grand Lodge of Maryland AF&AM thankfully replaced their old Temple with an equally magnificent modern one up in Cockeysville. At least they were sensitive and visionary enough to retain some of its grandeur using modern materials. 

In fact, I urge any Mason who is on a committee charged with building a new Temple to have a look at Maryland's facility built in the 1990s. Or at Chicago's new Scottish Rite Center, which is also a magnificent new edifice worthy of being called a Masonic Temple.

Sadly, most Masons tend to have deep pockets and short arms when it comes to building new temples these days, unlike our grandfathers and great grandfathers. How many more irreplaceable landmark temples on town squares across America are we going to flee and substitute with ugly, steel pole barn sheds in cornfields that look no more like a Masonic temple than a garage for tractors or a dentist office? How are they any replacement for what came before us?

Much like the design of a great church, entering a Masonic lodge should focus the Mason's mind on his purpose for being there, "to learn, to subdue my passions, and improve myself in Masonry." The most criminally misunderstood phrase in Masonric ritual is that the fraternity regards the internal and not the external qualifications of a man, because we've gone on to apply that philosophy to our temples, too. The truth is that what is on the outside is a reflection of what goes on inside. Our forebears designed and created stately and magnificent temples because they wanted the world and their own members to know that great men had entered their doors, and that great things went on inside of them. The more we neglect our temples on the outside, the more they rot spiritually on the inside, spiraling into lethargy and failure. And an abandoned temple is a symbol that the Masons who once inhabited it gave up.

Countless of these magnificent buildings that were "built for the Ages" have been lost to the fraternity, but that hasn't always meant their complete destruction. Deep-pocketed investors and visionaries have sometimes stepped in to rescue and adapt them for modern use. 

In the last couple of weeks, there have been some notable stories about our vanishing Masonic temples. Below are just a few of the latest. This is just Part One...

St. Louis' 'New Masonic Temple' Closes Today

St Louis’ New Masonic Temple’s final days as a Masonic building ended this weekend as the last bits remaining were sold off this morning and its doors locked. 

The temple was sold back in November to a St. Louis investor named Bryan Hayden, known for developing luxury apartments and condos. Construction of the 'New Masonic Temple' began in 1924, and it was dedicated in 1926, and 10,000 people attended its opening ceremonies back then. 

Parts of the building were never finished due to the Great Depression, and the 14-story building includes an unfinished theater designed for 2,200 seats. At one point, the Temple was the home of former Grand Master Harry S Truman’s office.

Milwaukee's Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center

Have a last look inside the Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center before it is gutted. The 128 year old building was sold in late 2017 to a developer that plans to turn the historic building into a 220-room hotel. Ascendant Holdings will renovate the Center and add an incongruent 14-story tower above the existing building. But at least it will survive in its new form.

The Scottish Rite bought the building in 1912, and it contained a large theatre for the Rite's degrees, a lodge room, a mahogany ballroom, and even the Double Eagle Pub.

See the complete slideshow from the Milwaukee Business Journal HERE.

Fairbanks, Alaska's Historic Masonic Temple Destroyed

After standing for 112 years and surviving fire, floods, earthquakes and countless heavy snowfalls, Fairbanks’ historic 1906 Masonic Temple on First Avenue was done in by the winter of 2018. On March 17th, a heavy snowfall collapsed the roof of the building. The National Weather Service reported that 80 inches of snow had fallen in Fairbanks by April, making it the 18th snowiest winter on record and the snowiest since 1992-93.

The Temple was the oldest standing building in Alaska.

When the roof collapsed, authorities agreed that the temple was a total loss, and it was demolished.

From the Fairbanks News Miner website on April 8th:

Originally constructed as the Tanana Commercial Company Store, the Masonic Temple, 809 First Ave., was built in 1906 and purchased by the Masonic Lodge two years later. The tin-pressed facade, perhaps the building’s most notable element, was added in 1916. President Warren G. Harding spoke from the building’s steps when he visited Fairbanks in 1923. In 1980, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Renaissance Revival style, popular during the 1880s and 1890s in the lower 48 states, appeared in Fairbanks as late as 1916. Thus, the "new" face from the 1916 remodeling is as representative of early Fairbanks as the original front it replaced.
The absence of stone and brick material in the construction of the facade was most striking. The Masons created the entire effect with sheet metal, painted a light reddish-tan color and affixed to an underlying wooden support. Kits for such facades were once available from mail-order catalogs. The facade not only furnished a low-maintenance exterior but also provided a visual affinity with Masonic Temples in the lower 48 states, without the expense of stone and brick construction.
The pragmatic approach remained an ongoing tradition in later alterations during the Masons' lengthy tenure. Starting with basically a warehouse, the Masons enlarged it, strengthened its foundation and floors, added a more energy-efficient compound front door, and low-maintenance aluminum siding. They replaced a weakened porch balustrade with a less elaborate metal rail and displayed reserve on interior remodeling.


  1. Many of the lost buildings had libraries with unique items which also have been lost. In one city at an academic event I came across a temple being gutted and in the basement found an abandoned room absolutely stuffed with manuscripts and books, including an archive of masonic trials. I gave the foreman some money and had a teaching assistant get some suitcases and stay a few more days to rescue as much as practical, sending some to Bro. Paul Bessel who was working on the library of the Memorial in Alexandria. in Alexandria. Another time a grand lodge secretary told me to take whatever wanted from the library, which was piled in the basement. On a third occasion a Eastern Star secretary unloaded 19th century documents and rituals to clear space in her safe. In the case pf one Scottish Rite jurisdiction, the then head took very early documents home and never returned them, and the librarian tossed out the entire early collection of a collateral body because they took up space.

  2. It's tragic to lose these buildings, but the economic reality is that they are not sustainable with the current membership trends.


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