Monday, April 18, 2011

A Lament for a Masonic Temple

Over 100 years ago the Brothers of St Johns lodge scraped and scrounged and raised enough capital to purchase a recently built brownstone chapel building from an Episcopal church to establish a permanent temple for the Freemasons in the city to call home. It was a magnificent edifice with a soaring ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows. They spent money converting the building for their purposes, decorating the vaulted ceiling with gold stars to represent the canopy of heaven and swapping out some of the stained glass windows with Masonic themed ones. There was a back lit cast copper square and compass sign on the street, to let people know when a meeting was going on, crafted by a local artisan and Brother, which was not the only priceless piece of art donated to the lodge by a member.

Inside the lodge room, on the west wall 30 feet in the air hangs a cast bronze circle between two parallel lines flanked by statuettes of St John the Baptist and St John the Divine, the patron Saints of Freemasonry and the reason the lodge is St. Johns plural. These men are represented again in paintings set into the wall above the entrance doors on each side of the room, paintings created by another talented Brother who also did many works around the city for the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression.

Then there is the brass, this metal is everywhere. Every door handle is made of it with a raised square and compasses in the middle. There are wall sconces in the South, West, and East with one , two, and three lights respectively, also in brass. In the center of the lodge room stand three massive brass candle holders embellished with scrolled leafs, cherubic faces and the symbol of the order. And on the door in the West there is a knocker in brass in the shape of the square and compasses.

At some point during its life there were theater seats added in two columns along the North and South sides of the room that were funded by the Brothers and their families who received an engraved plate on the armrest as thanks. Name plates also grace the collapse-able tables in the basement where the dining functions were held.

During it's heyday the membership swelled to over 600 members and the building shared it's refuge with Royal Arch Chapters, Templar Commanderies, and also a Eastern Star. The temple was the hub of the community life and the leaders of the community all belonged. Doctors, lawyers, ship captains, captains of industry, artists, religious leaders, business owners, and politicians lined up at the door to be counted among the order. It was an honor to belong and these men returned that honor by enhancing the temple where they met.

But golden ages never last, do they? The shining temple of Freemasonry that once vibrated with life fell on harder and harder times. When the cost of heating was almost nothing it was relatively easy to warm such a massive place but as the warm bodies that contributed to the heating of the building dwindled and the cost of oil rose, it became harder and harder to get the money to fire up the heat. Towards the end the Brothers were forced to meet in the basement during winter because they could not afford to heat up the lodge room. The slate roof leaked, the stained glass windows began to crumble, and the massive boiler needed replacing. The lodge had no money and little participating membership so when a church that rented the hall on Sundays offered to buy the building, the lodge jumped at the chance.

For twenty years the Church that purchased the building allowed the lodge to continue to meet there and never changed anything about the old Masonic Temple, save adding some chairs for its members and a drum set in the North East corner. Then we began to grow again.

Freemasonry underwent a revival and some dedicated Brothers nursed the old lodge back to health but alas even as the church that owned the building became interested in selling it, the lodge did not have enough money to return it to the order, let alone afford to operate it again. So began the the turning of a page in our history.

On Thursday night we will hold the last Stated Communication and Entered Apprentice Degree in the magnificent temple we have called home for over a hundred years. The building will always hold a special place in my heart as it definitely contributed to my knocking on the West Gate and joining the craft many years ago, but unfortunately soon it will  be a memory of a glorious past. 

God only knows what the future will hold.

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