PORTLAND — For more than a century, Freemasons have held secret ceremonies in the Portland Masonic Temple, a labyrinth of dark hallways and majestic rooms hidden inside what appears to be an ordinary downtown office building.
Now, with a deteriorating building and reduced membership, the fraternal order has decided it can save the temple only by inviting the public inside.
The idea is to make the building at 415 Congress St. a community asset while allowing Masons to continue using it as a meeting place, said Robert Kahn, chairman of the Masonic Trustees of Portland, who own and operate the building.
An effort to sell the temple to a condominium developer — a fate that has befallen Masonic temples around the nation — has been set aside in favor of a plan to save the temple without cutting it up. “The building has been given a second chance,” Kahn said.
Listed on National Register of Historic Places, the six-story building is divided into two segments, a modern section that is leased to business tenants, and the temple, which holds some of the most magnificent interior spaces in Maine, said Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks.
She said her group wants to help the Masons save the temple and revive its historic role in the city’s civic life as an important gathering place.
“The opportunity here is so great to bring this building back to being the center of the community,” she said.
To help pay for the temple’s upkeep and heating bills, the trustees began working with Blue Elephant Events and Catering last year to rent out some of the rooms for wedding receptions, fundraising dinners and corporate meetings.
Yarmouth High School held its prom there this spring. Students danced all evening on terrazzo floors in the armory, which has served as a drill room for the Knights Templar and has walls covered with wooden cabinets that store the knights’ chapeaus and regalia.
Because the early 20th-century building lacks a sprinkler system and adequate emergency exits, the public can use only the first and second floors. That means a stage and auditorium that can seat hundreds of people on the fourth floor is off limits for public use.
The trustees need about $4 million to bring the temple up to code, make it more energy-efficient and make repairs such as restoring the crumbling terracotta tile on the building’s exterior. To raise the money, the trustees have created a nonprofit group that is separate from the Masons organization.
The group is still in the planning stages and has yet to start fundraising. In the meantime, it is giving people a look inside the temple to raise public awareness.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, the public can tour the building as Masons celebrate the opening of the Maine Masonic Civil War Library and Museum, on the third floor. The museum tells the story of Masons who were on opposite sides in battles but helped each other during the war.
At 9:45 a.m. Civil War re-enactors will gather in Monument Square, along with an actor playing Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain, who was a Mason. The group will then will march down to the Masonic Temple while George Pulkkinen, a past grand master of the Grand Lodge of Maine, plays the bagpipes.
After this weekend’s event, the building will be open again on Oct. 19 as part of an annual event in which Masonic lodges around Maine are open to the public.
BUILT SAME YEAR AS TITANIC
The temple was built in 1911 — the year shipyard workers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, were finishing work on the Titanic.
In fact, a film crew from the History Channel came to Portland this year to film scenes inside the temple because the building’s two elevators are similar to the elevators on the doomed ocean liner. The elevators are still in working condition and are operated by a licensed attendant.
Between 1870 and 1930, grand Masonic temples were built in cities and towns around the country, says William Moore, an associate professor in Boston University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture and author of “Masonic Temples: Freemasonry, Ritual Architecture and Masculine Archetypes.”
The temples are incredibly well built because they are physical displays of the Masons’ mythology, he says. They were designed to communicate the grandeur of the Masonic Order — which is said to descend from the craftsmen who built King Solomon’s Temple in ancient Jerusalem.
Built at a time of rapid change in American society, Moore says, the temples were designed to evoke both masculinity and stability.
Mason membership down
Membership in fraternal organizations such as the Masons peaked in the years after World War II. It has been declining since then. The Masons’ national membership, which peaked at 4.5 million in the 1950s, is about a quarter of that today, Moore says.
When the Portland Masonic Temple was built, there were nearly 29,000 Masons in Maine, says Ed King, grand librarian of the Grand Lodge of Maine. Today, there are 20,700 dues-paying Masons in the state.
Although that membership decline is relatively modest, Masons aren’t as visible today as they were in the early 1900s, when they would travel long distances to march together down Congress Street, dressed in their finest costumes, King says.
Photographs in the Portland Temple show hundreds of men gathered around the building or marching down the street.
“Society was different back then,” King says. “This was their only entertainment to speak of.”
Kahn, the chairman of the trustees, is a member of Triangle Lodge 1, whose charter was signed by Paul Revere in 1796. Today, the lodge has about 200 members and holds formal meetings every month in the temple. While membership has shrunk over the decades, he’s now seeing more young men joining. He says the temple’s architecture and history are attracting them to the lodge.
The front half of the building, which is owned by a group of investors, is for sale for $3.8 million. The Masons owned that part of the building until the 1980s, renting it to commercial tenants. They sold the offices as a part of plan to build a new temple on outer Congress Street.
The sale was a huge mistake, Kahn says. The Masons never built the new temple, and they lost the income from commercial tenants. And with the building’s ownership divided, it’s harder to provide emergency access to the temple. He says the Masons can’t afford to buy the front section back.
INSIDE THE TEMPLE
From the outside, it’s hard to see what’s so special about the building, which houses the Maine Red Claws Team Store and Bayside Print Services as ground-floor tenants.
Halfway down the hallway in the center of the building, however, a heavy wooden door swings open and reveals “space that is clearly sacred,” says Sarah Bouchard, who has been working in the building since 2011 on an art installation. The artwork consists of filling the temple’s most significant rooms with hundreds of egg-like orbs. Many of the orbs will be visible on Saturday, but the project is still unfinished. Several large rooms are on various floors, some with ceilings as high as 45 feet, says Bouchard, who studied the original architectural drawings.
The Corinthian Hall, on the third floor, is graced by a 20-foot-tall stained glass window, ornate columns and paneled ceilings.
Next door, Boody Hall is a smaller room, and feels like the throne room of a medieval king.
Portraits of former Mason leaders look down from a wall of the Scottish Rite Reading Room.
The Eastern Star Room, which was used by the women’s branch of the Masons, contains an enormous step ladder that has become a permanent part of the room because there is no other room big enough to store it.
Deb Andrews, who manages Portland’s historic preservation program, says the landmark building’s central location, historic features and massive rooms are attractive for public events, meetings and conferences. “It’s an extraordinary asset for the city.”
Bouchard says the Masons can’t restore the building by themselves.
“The idea of it falling into disrepair is heartbreaking,” she says. “It would show a failure of not just the Masons but the entire community if the building is not saved.”
When the temple was built, it was a social hub for the city, including the general public, Kahn says. Old photographs show that the hallway was filled with vendors selling goods from carts. Meals were open to the public in the dining room downstairs. During World War II, the USO held public dances in the armory. People played pool and cards.
“We want to reclaim that openness and welcoming of the general public,” Kahn says.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: