by Christopher Hodapp
Freemasonry's White Elephant hunters continue to divest themselves of our historic architecture. Almost a year ago, the Scottish Rite Valley in Savannah, Georgia voted to unload their unique landmark 1923 building at 341 Bull Street just off Madison Square in the historic downtown area of town. It has been sold for $12 million to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which has leased space in the building for several years and operated the popular Gryphon Tea Room restaurant. So at least it won't meet the wrecking ball.
|The elegant Gryphon Tea Room restaurant in the current Scottish Rite temple|
When the sale of the building was announced last year, news stories said the Valley would turn the keys over to the new owners in June of 2020. The one year move-out period was to give the Scottish Rite time to build their new facility, and they had anticipated holding a final reunion in the old temple last month. The COVID-19 Wuhan virus shutdown has undoubtedly thrown a monkey wrench into those plans briefly, as the most recent update I can find was from February and the building is closed.
They just broke ground on their new property in March.
James Johns, General Secretary for Scottish Rite in the Valley of Savannah, says the building downtown was difficult for members to access, with issues like parking restrictions, and says the new center will be easier to access.
"Our membership will now be able to access the building with more of an ease. What that allows us to do is serve the community and serve masonry in general easily, and allow new members to come and be a part of it, where that was restricted downtown," said Johns.
They have a target completion date of November.
The new location is about three miles west of downtown in an office park just off the interstate, far from Savannah's hugely popular, distinctive and historic tourist-friendly streets. I'm sure the new building will be nice and modern, with wheelchair ramps and plenty of parking. Looks like it's all one story, so no pesky elevators, either. But take a look at the architectural rendering and ask yourself how it compares aesthetically to what they are leaving behind.
Will their new Scottish Rite Masonic Center be considered part of the fabric of Savannah, as its present one is? Will anyone a hundred years from today regard the new center as fondly, significantly or admiringly as they do the present one? Will anyone even notice it, nestled in amongst the generic FedEx and insurance offices, as they rocket past it on I-16? Will it dominate the skyline or cause anyone to even stop and explore it? Will anyone be itching to locate their own business inside a corner of it because they desperately want to share in its grandeur, charm, beauty and mystery, as the current Gryphon tea room restaurant does in their present home? Will anyone EVER pull off the highway and be inspired to explain to their bewildered family, "THAT'S where the Freemasons are! The Masons built that!" Or say to their sons, "Great things go on there!"
Will any future starry-eyed non-Mason ever look at it, feel a spark in his heart, and say, "I've got to be a part of THAT organization!"
I'm only asking the question, because our forefathers did before us. Inspiration was important to Freemasons until the late 20th century. It took Savannah's Masons more than thirty years to complete their first historic Scottish Rite Temple as they raised money and slowly erected it. The Valley's own website today (which contains not a single architectural image of the present Temple's magnificent three-story lodge room and intimate auditorium) says, "...the Dreamers who saw in their visions a new and handsome home for Savannah Masonry were ready to proceed with what would be a source of pride for the fraternity and an ornament to the city of Savannah."
What will Masonic architecture of today inspire the next generations to say when we are gone?
And are we really going to continue to accept mediocrity and bland steel toolshed temples under the lazy excuse that "a lodge is not a building?"
The Scottish Rite Masons of Savannah didn't just consider their OWN membership's needs between 1896 and their temple's completion in 1928, but also what its place in their city was and whether it would inspire future generations to also join us in our fraternal mission. Masons used to build for the Ages. All they asked us to do was either care for what they left us, or build even better.
Where be our Dreamers now?