|Our Past vs. our Present.|
“In an age in which we travel from private houses in little enclosed metal boxes on wheels into private office cubicles and then back again…there is precious little sense of shared experience in our lives, or at least precious few times in which shared experience is expressed in terms of a common physical place.”
– architectural critic Paul Goldberger
What's In A Building?
Freemasonry is a fraternity constructed around the allegory of the architecture and building trade. Our prior brethren had a pretty good understanding of that allegory and how it related to the building of character in Man. Because of that, many of them were inspired to take that allegory a step further and apply it to our Masonic Temples beginning in the last decades of the 19th century.
My post earlier this month about an unnamed Masonic Temple that was recently sold to non-Masons (see 'Once Upon A Time') attracted an enormous number of readers. Obviously it struck a chord with many Brethren around the U.S. and Canada. Unfortunately, the Brethren who are members of the two lodges that moved out of that unnamed building were upset that I turned attention on them, even anonymously. 'You just don't understand,' they said. It was an albatross around their necks and wallets, they love their new surroundings now, "and a lodge is not a building," goes the familiar refrain. And they have better parking.
All very true.
I understand these problems better than they can possibly know. Not just anecdotally or academically, either. I've been in the trenches of historic preservation since I was nine years old. I've lived in two very historic homes in my life (the Burd Patterson house in Pottsville, Pennsylvania; and the Dunlora Farm House in Charlottesville, Virginia, originally designed by Jefferson for his friend Dabney Carr). The very first money I made in a job as a teenager went to help preserve the past. I was on the Board of Directors for a railroad museum when I was 16. As an adult, in my job of 25 years I helped maintain an historic mansion that had cultural significance which housed our offices and studio. I served on the Temple Board for our massive downtown Masonic Temple that was neglected for decades, had a brief revival, and now sadly again faces abandonment because they lost their vision all over again. And I also served for many years as a Trustee for a suburban lodge that previously shoved its aging early-1900s temple overboard in favor of an ugly, anonymous 1960s office building. So I'm not just talking out of my hat. I know the problems, the costs, and the challenges.
Masonic lodges don't need a building at all, and it's arguable that we began losing our way when we started going into the real estate business. Frankly, there are a thousand times more fights and arguments and lost friendships over building problems than almost anything else in this fraternity. I can make a convincing argument for dumping every one of them and meeting solely in private hotel spaces and dining rooms, if all we want to be is Kiwanis with aprons. Perhaps that setup would be ideal, if every lodge had just 36 members with at least a 50% participation rate each meeting. But we all know the 'back to the tavern movement' isn't really an answer for most of us in mid-sized and large lodges in America. And no U.S. grand lodge is ever going to voluntarily enact rules demanding and enforcing lodges of no more than three dozen members.
I don't argue for a BIG building, nor do I argue for a building that solely exists for its age or its monumental bigness. I DO argue that preserving a significant cultural, historic, and architectural treasure is a duty that has been thrust on many Freemasons, like it or not. And we as Masons and our communities suffer when we allow them to crumble, fail or be destroyed.
But more to the point, I am arguing for important Masonic Temples, whether they are a huge antique marble barn on the corner of Main and State Streets, or a brand new steel barn in a cornfield. Or anything in between.
I. Our Alabaster Albatrosses
Why did we all do it? Why did the Masons and all of the other major fraternal groups of the late 19th and early 20th centuries erect so many enormous stone piles across America between 1900 and 1929 that we are now fleeing at an ever faster clip?
Part of it has to do with wanting our special clubhouses to contain what we regard as a 'sacred space.' When our great-grandfathers built these enormous Temples, they weren't just creating an elaborate tree fort to play in. They regarded them no less important than a statehouse building or a large church. They understood architectural theory then, or they had members who were architects themselves, and they believed a sacred space should look like one, inside and out. That's why they called them Temples, and not merely halls.
|Detroit Masonic Temple|
When the doors of the lodge room are closed and the meeting is opened, the room itself is deliberately designed to be a sanctuary from the chaotic maelstrom of the world outside. It contains imagery that appears nowhere else in the rest of the world and sets the mood conducive to introspection and concentration. Or it should. In lodge, all arguments and differences are to be set aside and brethren meet on the level, without question.
|Ocean Lodge 89, New Jersey|
Sure, that may be a utopian version of Freemasonry, but in practice, it actually works pretty well. And proper surroundings reinforce that psychologically.
The other reason was simple competition. The larger fraternal organizations in our towns were in head to head competition with each other, so they built these bigger and more majestic buildings to impress: to impress visitors, their towns, potential petitioners, and instill pride in their own members.
|Knights of Pythias Castle, Indianapolis|
The big building boom happened during the time of the City Beautiful Movement that had begun with Chicago's Columbian Exposition in 1893. That famed architectural period preached the gospel that you didn't erect a major, significant building in a city or town unless it was artistically beautiful, substantial, and most important, that it contributed to the overall beautification and improvement of your entire community.
|Daniel Burnham's Chicago Masonic Temple 1891 -|
Freemasons had erected the tallest skyscraper in the world at the time
|1893 Columbian Exposition and the White City|
That world's fair was dominated by the vision of superstar Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who had designed the tallest skyscraper in the world erected two years before, in 1891 - the dazzling Chicago Masonic Temple. But the centerpiece of the Fair was the 'White City,' named for the gleaming temporary structures made of plaster that depicted a majestic city of classical designs, surrounding its central lagoon. It was a celebration inspired by the overarching theme of John Ruskin's famed 1846 essay, The Seven Lamps of Architecture: "When we build, let us think that we build forever," (even if Ruskin favored Gothic over Neo-Classical...).
In the fashion of the Fair, classical architecture with bright limestone and Grecian columns replaced the dark, foreboding, red brick Romanesque style favored in the post-Civil War, pre-1900 era. Ugly buildings and haphazard development depresses people, went the theory. Planned communities, on a huge scale, would be the answer to creating tranquil cities that would silently help to quell social unrest and blunt the tumult of the Industrial Age. Happy people would achieve better things, and so the city was to reflect art and learning and the Classics. In other words, build big, build beautiful, build for the Ages To Come, or don't bother to build at all. Anything less was bad for the whole community.
Companies, institutions, and even architects don't really ascribe to that philosophy anymore. And we can save the argument over whether that is good or bad for our communities for another day. The point is that American Freemasons of the early 1900s grabbed the bull by the horns and started building majestic and significant temples. It became a nationwide embrace of the Pillar of Beauty that Freemasons enshrined in our own ritual.
II. He Speaketh Treason: Appearances Do Matter
The Danish language has a word: aerekaer. It’s a combination of both honor and pride. It's an expression of concern about your own honor, and about how other people will see and regard you.
When you drive through the average town in America, it's usually pretty easy to spot the distinctive pre-1940s Masonic Temple, if it is still standing. Until the end of WWII, you could generally spot the Masons' location in any given town just by driving around within a few blocks of City Hall and looking at the façades.
What goes on in there?
Not today. The bulk of those downtown locations have been abandoned, and the Masons have moved to cheaper land, with bigger parking lots, and generic meeting halls.
There is no doubt that the overriding sense of price-driven cheapness and instant gratification of pre-fabricated steel buildings that can be ordered over the Internet have taken their toll on the architecture business (that, combined with the practical demand that our roofs not leak). Even huge corporations – outside of Apple and arguably Bass Pro/Cabala's – don't build 'important,' distinctive buildings anymore. But the truth is that the deterioration of our older Masonic buildings today, combined with the construction of new lodges resembling tool sheds in corn fields — featureless on the outside and horrifically planned on the inside – no longer impress anyone. More and more lodge buildings since the 1960s are strictly generic, utilitarian sheds for the conferral of degrees, the holding of business meetings, and the dishing up of bad food in the sterile looking dining hall. They are no more significant or distinctive than a garage for farm implements or boats, storing auto parts, or a veterinary office.
There's no wonder that Grand Lodges have dissuaded the use of the term 'Temple' over the last three decades, because these types of buildings seem to be anything but that. The sadder truth is that we have no reason to impress anyone anymore because we have outlived our competition. The result is that, like an old, abandoned Bonanza steakhouse, we are now looking shabby as a fraternity.
|Behold! The Pillar of Beauty?!|
But it's cheap to heat and roof doesn't leak.
I'm going to say something that is anathema to many Masons these days: appearances really do matter. You know that it matters to you in your daily life and interactions with others, so there's no sense in denying it when it comes to our own fraternity. Or as the comedian Jerry Seinfeld recently said about appearing before his audience, "That’s why I wear a suit. It’s a signal: I’m not loafing here."
When we say we "make good men better," don't we mean 'better' in EVERY sense of the word? Why doesn't that start with better surroundings and a better outward appearance?
Put it another way: when Freemasonry looked impressive to the outside world, we looked significant to the public and to ourselves, and we attracted the most influential members in our entire history. We thought we were the best of the best, and we treated ourselves accordingly. We expected better, and we got it. No longer. Today, the world drives right past our generic sheds without a second glance. They don't even notice we're here.
|Apple Store, New York City|
|Apple Park, Cupertino, California|
Since I brought up Apple, take note of their architectural philosophy, from their huge new 'space ship' corporate headquarters, to their individual retail stores: there's no misconstruing who's in those buildings and what goes on inside. They spend an enormous amount of money and thought to make sure no one mistakes their buildings for anything but an Apple store. You notice them, and can almost spot all of their store facades from low Earth orbit. Why? Because they have aerekaer. They have bags of it, and they care very much how they appear to the world. Apple's products are not overwhelmingly superior to Samsung's in terms of the tasks they accomplish, but they have created an aura about their company, their wares, and consequently, their customers themselves. And they have much higher standards below which they will not go. There's a vital lesson to be learned there.
III. A Masonic Lodge is Sacred Space
Impressive buildings, both inside and outside, inspire people and put them in a different mindset. The medieval cathedrals that our forebears constructed were designed to awe all who entered, making them feel as though they were surrounded by a majestic force far greater than themselves. In short, they were built to impress and they were deliberately designed to create a psychological mindset. Everywhere your eye falls inside of a medieval cathedral is supposed to transport you into another spiritual plane. The congregant or penitent feels that he is in the presence of God. The stone walls fall away, the ceiling soars to heaven, and all of the colors of the world and the universe beam down upon you, bathing you in the light of God and His creation. That was a deliberate vision of the architects, because sacred architecture was supposed to be different from anything else on Earth.
|Ste. Chappelle, Paris|
We have a plaque over our lodge room entrance that says in Latin, "Bidden or unbidden, God is present." Like a church (whether your lodge members realize it or not), a lodge room also represents a sacred space - a non-sectarian one, with its own peculiar symbolism, to be sure - but a sacred space nonetheless. It's not a place of worship, but a sanctuary. And its goal should be to place your fellow Masons in a psychologically different space than the outside world. Just like a church is deliberately designed to do.
That isn't done with threadbare furniture, peeling paint, rotten carpet, faulty lighting, and walls covered in faux pine hardware store panelling, or a a vast expanse of powder blue cinder blocks.
So, let's say the argument is long over. Let's say that you don't have an old magnificent temple to save anymore, because your lodge made that decision long before you got there, and now you're currently gathering in a bland, faceless, anonymous building today.
IV. 'Sacred' Doesn't Equal Big or 'Old'
Even in cases where a building's exterior is ugly, an opportunity exists to use that in your favor, from a design standpoint. You can still impress in a cinder block warehouse or a pole barn if the Masonic Temple itself inside of it that the candidate or Mason enters is beautiful, inspiring, maybe even startling, or in some other way incredibly distinctive on the inside. In fact, when a lodge room is situated inside of an anonymous warehouse or office building on the outside, encountering a surprisingly atmospheric Masonic space on the inside is like opening a beautiful and unexpected gift. In short, a room that puts that candidate or those members into a different place spiritually, philosophically, or psychologically. Or just plain makes them feel better when they enter.
This has absolutely nothing to do with money, age or size of a building, or even size of a lodge's membership. Consider that even the famed 1880 'Lodge Room Over Simpkin's Store' in Colorado managed to convey this sense of atmosphere and sanctuary in an attic room with the barest of resources. In fact, it's actually heightened by the closeness of the tiny room. It plays a subtle trick on the mind as you climb the steps: "There's a Masonic Lodge in here?!"
Bear one last thing in mind. When I argue for the deliberate design of sacred space in a Masonic lodge, that does not automatically mean hang on with a death grip to everything old in your Temple building. Even in a pole barn lodge building, there's no reason why a Mason shouldn't find an inspiring Temple.
|Lexington Lodge 1, Kentucky|
John Ruskin wrote, “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.”
In the coming weeks, I will share some images to try to jumpstart your thoughts about how to make your own lodge room into more of a sanctuary from the outside world than it perhaps may be now. The examples will be from around the world, and may be very, very unlike what you are used to finding in the average American Masonic Temple. And in almost every case, I will ignore the exterior entirely.
Because it's the internal, you know...
In most cases, they will be contemporary designs, and nearly all of them look VERY different from the average U.S. lodge room. And each and every one of them looks very distinct from the others. Money isn't the deciding factor – imagination, ingenuity, and love and understanding of the fraternity and its symbols is the real answer. And a little artistic flair helps.
|Broad Ripple Lodge 645, Indiana|
Regardless, whether your lodge is in an old building or a new one, a huge temple or an anonymous office park, the time is long past to be rid of ugly, uninspiring, and downright embarrassing lodge rooms in America. It's long past time to get to work.
Because to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, 'It’s a signal. We're not loafing here.'