Sunday, April 20, 2014
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.
Gordon Chibroski, Staff Photographer. The Bible sits on the alter in Corinthian Hall of the Masonic Temple in Portland. The hall is named for the Corinthian columns that grace the large room designed for major ceremonial meetings.
The outside of the Masonic Temple on Congress Street shows grand proportions but little hint of the magnificence inside.
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.
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Employees of Blue Elephant Innovative Events & Catering set up the classic Scottish Rite Reading Room in the Masonic Temple for a function Friday. The room is one of many that are used to host events that bring in revenues.
Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
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