October 5, 2013

Masons open their majestic spaces

Freemasons are opening their 102-year-old Masonic Temple to the public in an effort to raise money to preserve this spectacular but hidden architectural jewel.

by Tom Bell
Staff Writer

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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.

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The outside of the Masonic Temple on Congress Street shows grand proportions but little hint of the magnificence inside.

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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.

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Additional Photos

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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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