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


Friday, October 12, 2018

Once Upon A Time

G. K. Chesterton once said that "the world would never starve for wonders, but only for the want of wonder."

Once upon a time, there was this great and admired fraternity called the Freemasons. The Masons did incredible things, attracted the best and the brightest, proudly made a difference in society, and were the very pillars of their communities. 

Everybody knew it.

They also built magnificent Temples that stood the test of time which were the most splendid clubhouses anywhere. 

Take the Masonic Temple in the photo above. It was built at the height of the fraternal building boom in 1927, and there were hundreds of them all over the country that looked just as sturdy and impressive. In those heady days, the Freemasons had to compete with the Woodmen, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Knights of Columbus, and scores of others for the hearts and minds of fraternal-minded Americans. So they constructed these landmark Temples to rise above, to stand out from all others, and to make sure there was no one in their community who wasn't aware of just who and what the Freemasons were and where they were located, right in the heart of their town. It was built to impress, to inspire both non-Masons and Masons alike, and to make a statement that the Freemasons were the best of the best. It told the whole world that great things went on inside, and that great men believed in Masonry and being a Mason. It didn't look like any other sort of building. It was designed to make passersby stop and look. It was awe inspiring. It was stable. It was immovable. It wan't temporary. And it sure wasn't cheap.

Well, it's not 1927 anymore. There's no competition anymore. The Masons in this particular town have sold their Temple building recently to a Buddhist Temple. All of the usual reasons were cited: dwindling membership, rising maintenance costs, too much space to heat and cool. So the Masons got $425,000 for it, and I'm sure they felt like they were lucky not to have to pay anyone to take their white elephant off their hands. "Phew! That was lucky!" I'm sure someone said, as they cashed the check and fled.

Today when all of those imaginary "young men" who are supposed to "save the fraternity" come driving through their town looking for the lodge to join, where can the Masons be found now? Where have they moved to now? Where are the Freemasons of this town who used to be so prominent in their community? Are they in a proud new Temple that impresses, that equally proclaims their pride, their noble stature, their legendary heritage and the promise of an equally legendary future, just in a slightly smaller but equally magnificent edifice?

Not a chance.

They're right here. Inside of a generic office building that looks like a medical office. 

Or a real estate firm. 

Or an accountant. 

Or insurance company.

Or anything besides a Masonic Temple.

When the local paper interviewed one of the the Masons for a story on the sale of their old Temple, the most enthusiastic thing that he could find to say about their new location was that it has "better parking." 

But hey, I'll bet the elevator works flawlessly and the roof doesn't leak. What more can anyone want? Perhaps someone will even put their lodge names on the office directory in the lobby.

John Ruskin once famously wrote, “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey.”

For a fraternal group that so mythologizes its origins among the most storied and legendary builders and architects of the Biblical and Medieval worlds, how can we as Masons now accept the most banal mediocrities as being suitable for our Temples, which are supposed to be our sanctuaries from the chaotic and mundane world around us?

The most grotesquely misunderstood and abused phrase in all of Freemasonry is "it is the internal, not the external qualities of a man which Masonry regards." That phrase has been used as an excuse to accept, condone and perpetuate mediocrity. It's used to excuse sloppy dress and personal appearance, to excuse bad public behavior, to excuse generic pole barn Temples, to excuse poor ritual performance, and worst of all, to justify the failure to provide a quality lodge experience to our own members. We don't have a new member problem, we have a retention problem. New members flee today almost as quickly as we make them Masons because they are disappointed by our lodges and the experience we gave them. And we have no business bringing another new man into this fraternity until our existing members love it, cherish it, believe in it, practice it, and make it the very best it can be. Those sort of Masons don't leave.

The good news is that the Buddhist Temple folks DO believe in the value of their former home of the Freemasons. They recognize it's still an important landmark in their town, and they are treating it accordingly. They are repairing it, cleaning it, heating and cooling it, and are happy and proud to be its new owners. So at least it won't be razed and scraped from the face of the Earth as so many others have been. And will continue to be, as temple after temple shambles down this same, dreary, future path. 

It's hard to find the resources and strength and resolve to keep these irreplaceable places, to think creatively, and to involve the community, so we all don't lose them forever. Because one thing is certain: we Freemasons sure won't replace them with anything better these days. 

Not by a long shot.

Tomorrow, people will drive past this still impressive and beautiful Temple with its new owners. Someone will undoubtedly ask "What was that place, anyway?" 

And someone else will undoubtedly answer, "Once upon a time, there was this great and admired fraternity called the Freemasons...." 


  1. Brother Hodapp -

    Thank you for this piece. As someone who works every day in one of these buildings (the Dayton Masonic Center) I appreciate your ongoing efforts to highlight what we lose when we lose these landmarks - not only landmarks in our communities, but landmarks in the masonic sense perhaps as well.

    1. I fully agree with Randy Clark. The information that you present is as always succinct and draws attention to information that is prevalent across North America and known locally in many cities. However, I have not had the pleasure of reading the book alluding to the message you deliver in this synopsis. I will get it now that I am aware of its existence and I will use it to bring reality into the minds of my fraternal Brethren. Thank you for all you do Brother Hodapp.

  2. This is an absolutely true description of the situation. Moreover,many of these lost temples had artifacts and libraries,often the gift of Masons who had collected over the years and found unique items -- those collections are now largely scattered, with individual items appearing on ebay along with portraits, furniture, jewels. Despite years of watching this happen, the leadership has done little to save what is left. A very very expert authority on Masonic membership told me recently we would almost certainly be down to 400,000 members by 2030 -mostly over the age of 70 -- despite what is said about renewal. Our retention rate is miserable.

    1. I would put Masonic membership at about 700,000 by 2030, but the point is still well taken that we are in a membership freefall. The issue thus becomes: What are we willing to do?

    2. Mark, I hope it does stabilize at 700,000 but almost inevitably some affiliates like the Shrine will go their own way, like Acacia did on campuses. The Philalethes is considering non Masonic membership, just as the Scottish Rite Research Society has already done. We are studied less and less by our own in some cases than by scholars who are not members such as David Stevenson, William Moore, Margaret Jacobs, Andrew Prescott, Guillermo De Los Reyes, Susan Sommers. So there is a great deal about the health of the Craft that needs our serious thought. The occasional success stories are just that, occasional.

  3. I understand the sentiment and agree it is a sad sight, but I respectfully disagree with the solution. If we’re hung up with the outward instead of the inner appearance, as the charge states then we’re doing something wrong.

    I belong to Quinta Essential #500, a traditional observance lodge in CT, that meets in a restaurant and owns no property. It is the brothers that make a lodge, not a building, and our gatherings are always an enlightening experience.

    I’m not sure what the answer to our membership problem is, but an expensive building, to me, isn’t it.

    Interested article, nonetheless.

    Paul Speranza

  4. Thoughtful post. Several years ago a young Masonic writer said, we may have to get used to having a smaller fraternity.

    Just a casual perusal of the news or current events effecting the world stage is enough to convince many that organizations like Freemasonry are not going to have an easy time gaining members. Along with the "information age" has come it's terrible twin, the "materialistic age" and all the associated problems. The problems are LEGION. What to do? No easy solution, but it is important to realize we can expect no help from the uninitiated. we are, as they say, on our own. "And if we are going to see this thing through we may have to get a little dirty." For example, UGLE and it's 'enough' campaign. That small gesture of a lapel pin is really the herald of a much larger discussion; attitudes are changing among Masons.

    In 2011 a Masonic writer presented a paper where he asked a series of questions regarding Masonic "drop-outs, disinterest, and disenchantment among Masons." It is a little lengthy, but I quote them because they still seem relevant today. They are as follows:

    "Do you feel fitted to the organization? Have you found what you expected? Have differences of social positions, financial possessions, political opinions etc. made you feel ill at ease in the organization?"

    "Do the obligations of Freemasonry conflict with your other obligations? Have you found any moral improvement as well as spiritual and intellectual advancement in your life?"

    "Are you faithful to your Lodge? Has the Lodge become a Centre of union in you life? These and many more questions we can ask ourselves." And the Brother (in my opinion) is right.

    Regarding Masonic Temples, in my opinion, they are more than simply meeting places for Masonic work (as important as that definitely is). They are also concrete/outward SYMBOLS of Freemasons attempting to bring a little bit of "heaven down to earth" for all the world to see (a sort of CONCRETE sacred space) and it is sad to see them go. We are BUILDERS, after all.

  5. Right? This is the problem with the whole McMansion mindset.
    The younger generation is turned off by that.
    I firmly believe Freemansry might be better of returning to it's simpler roots of meeting in taverns. No real estate problems. Keep it simple. It's more of a local grassroots feel to it that way.
    It might be just as well these MCMansion lodges go with the times.

    1. Respectfully I will simply reply that there is no single answer for all lodges, and there never has been. I have encouraged the widest possible variety of Masonic lodges, meeting styles and customs for almost twenty years now. There's plenty of room in the fraternity for tavern style lodges, traveling lodges, moonlight lodges, daylight lodges, special purpose, 'dining and tuxedo', and yes, what you are calling McMansion lodges. My point is that these landmark buildings are a rare and dwindling resource today, and we shuck them off at our greater loss to the fraternity as a whole. They represent an enormous asset that we can never get back once we dump them. And I would personally rather have five or six of the most glorious ones saved in any given state than a thousand prefabricated steel pole barns in cornfields with a square and compass slapped on them. Just as we bitch today about prior generations that shouldered us with these enormous buildings without any way to support their future upkeep, I predict that the next generation will curse us to eternity for selling off and fleeing these landmark Temples. Both are irresponsible.

  6. Chris -

    These brothers agonized for several years over having to make this sale. They struggled to stay in their old temple but sadly could not make it work. In fact they found a solution that kept two lodge plus all three York Rite bodies in town and in the downtown area no less. The work that these Brothers, Companions and Sir Knights put into building a new Masonic home is incredible and the fruit of their labors is a beautiful new space which was truly built by the brothers of the craft. A Lodge is the brothers not a building. While I am not a member of any of the local bodies that are covered in this attack piece I'll take their love of the craft and call them my brothers and companions any day of the week.

    While I admit that when I first heard their plan to move into an office building such as this it raised an eyebrow or two but as I listened to the brothers and understood why they were making the sale but what their plan was to build a new Temple. I put my faith in these brothers and when you walk into this new Lodge the outside mundane world is shutout and the sacred space is found.

    I would be happy to discuss with you more in Louisville, if you are there.

    James McNeely

    1. Please note that I did not identify their lodge(s) and location in the article. That was on purpose because this is a larger story applicable nationwide. And if their own members are happy with their decision and are proud of their new surroundings, I couldn't be more pleased for them.

  7. Having been, entered, passed, and raised in that building. It was a marvel, but the upkeep was too much. I wish my brothers from my mother lodge well.

    A.M. -Las Vegas, NV


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