Welcome to the Masonic Temple
Freemasons open their sacred space to the arts
by Chris Busby
The Masonic Temple in downtown Portland is an architectural marvel hidden in plain sight. Completed in 1911 at the corner of Congress and Chestnut streets, two years after City Hall was constructed next door, the building’s exterior betrays few hints of the grandeur inside: floor upon floor of stunning rooms with soaring ceilings and the world-class craftsmanship central to the tenets of a movement whose roots reach back half a millennium.
The first floor features the Scottish Rite Reading Room, a sumptuous wood-paneled space with a huge fireplace and portraits of notable Maine Freemasons gazing down from the walls. Across the hallway is the spacious Armory, the walls of which contain hundreds of wooden lockers for the storage of members’ regalia. The second floor is dominated by Corinthian Hall, another enormous room, with its mosaic floor, two 20-foot-high stained-glass windows and a century-old pipe organ. High-backed wooden chairs on marble platforms face the center of this ritual space from the east, south and west sides.
The grandest room of all is on the fourth floor: the Scottish Rite Auditorium, with its long balcony (in which there is another massive pipe organ), vaulted stage and seating for over 400. A host of smaller halls and ceremonial spaces can be found throughout the six-story building, each with its own magnificent details — meticulously rendered decorative painting, hand-carved wood panels and accents, ornamental plaster and vintage furniture and fixtures.
The temple was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, but made another list 30 years later when it was designated one of Greater Portland Landmarks’ “Places in Peril.” The building needs extensive renovation work and safety-code upgrades that could cost upwards of $7 million. A closer look at its exterior reveals metal screening installed a few years ago to keep chunks of the terra cotta ornamentation on its façade from falling to the sidewalk.
The temple’s fortunes have followed those of the downtown around it: growth and prosperity through the first half of the last century, disinvestment and decline in the second. Membership in Freemasonry began to fall in the 1960s, in keeping with the larger societal shift away from such fraternal organizations. In the 1980s, a faction among the various lodges that use the temple proposed that the Masons follow the major retailers out of downtown Portland and build a new temple in South Portland, near the Maine Mall and the jetport.
The Masons in Portland were getting older, noted Bob Kahn, current chairman of the Portland Masonic Trustees, and among the factors driving the push to leave town was a desire for convenient parking. (A lot behind the temple was sold to the city in the ’80s so Portland High School could expand.)
The move to South Portland never materialized, but in 1989 the Masons made what may, in hindsight, be a fateful decision to sell the front half of their building, which contains retail and office space. The front half functioned as the temple’s endowment — the money it generated allowed the Masons to operate the back half, where their meetings and rituals take place. Without that revenue, it’s been a struggle to maintain the temple’s infrastructure.
About five years ago, the trustees put the temple on the market, too, but no buyers materialized. Real-estate values had yet to rebound from the effects of the Great Recession. Now the temple’s trustees find themselves in the midst of a resurgent downtown real-estate market, but rather than sell the temple, they’re determined to harness Portland’s cultural cache to save it for years to come.
At the end of 2010, the Masons contracted with the Saco-based catering company Blue Elephant to book events in the temple’s ground-floor rooms. Blue Elephant has since brought several dozen events to the temple each year, including weddings, corporate and non-profit meetings and functions, culinary happenings and high school proms.
Around the same time, the Masons allowed my partner, Sarah Bouchard, to assume the unprecedented position of artist-in-residence at the temple (an appointment all the more extraordinary given Freemasonry’s male-centric ethos). Bouchard was given space on the fifth floor — the location of the ladies’ sitting room and the Eastern Star Hall, which formerly functioned as the ritual space of Freemasonry’s women’s auxiliary, the Order of the Eastern Star — where she’s been working on a large-scale sculptural installation. The installation embodies the concept of the temple’s rebirth through feminine forms and energy.
Bouchard has been advocating for years to open the temple to artistic and cultural programming “in alignment with the phenomenal grandeur and integrity of the space,” she said. “I wanted to establish a dialogue between contemporary visual and performing arts and the ideals of Freemasonry and the history of the space.”
Bouchard is now the temple’s first-ever artistic director. In March, she and the Masonic Temple Foundation — a separate non-profit formed a few years ago to raise funds for the building’s restoration — formally launched a new arts and cultural series. “I’ve done the research,” said Bouchard. “The Masonic temples that fail are the ones that don’t engage the public.” The foundation needs to “support creative ways to allow artists and performers and the community at large to interact with the space and spark a dialogue.”
The local professional theater company Cast Aside Productions staged a one-day benefit performance of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park With George in Corinthian Hall on March 15. Beginning in May, the ground floor of the temple will be open for the First Friday Art Walk. Artist Jessica Lauren Lipton will be exhibiting paintings and multidimensional interactive work for the show next month. Bouchard is encouraging other artists and arts organizations to collaborate with the temple on future events.
Though revenue generated by arts events will be helpful, Kahn said the more significant benefit will be the boost it gives the foundation’s larger fundraising efforts, which have yet to begin in earnest. These events also bring potential new Masons into the sacred space. “It really has energized our lodge, because a lot of young guys see it and they want to become a part of Masonry due to the building,” Kahn said. “I think there is a recognition, to kind of quote Churchill, that men shape buildings and then buildings shape men.”
The temple’s potential as an arts and cultural venue is tremendous, say the artists involved thus far. “Because the space is so unique to the city, it’s huge for the creative scene,” said Lipton, who also works as the program assistant for the local arts-advocacy group Creative Portland.
Space in Portland for theatrical performances is “very tight,” said David Surkin, Cast Aside’s co-founder and artistic director. The company’s executive director, co-founder Celeste! Green, noted that one venue quoted Cast Aside a cost of $64,000 to book its space for one week. The Sunday in the Park production posed some significant technical and logistical challenges, Green and Surkin said, and not all of the Masons on hand were comfortable having strangers working in the sacred space of Corinthian Hall, but the temple would help meet a need for theater venues that grows more pressing every year — especially if the auditorium on the fourth floor were available.
The Masons’ activities at the temple are “grandfathered” under city building regulations, Kahn said, so they’ve always had access to the upper floors. But significant work will have to be done to meet fire and life-safety codes so rooms like the auditorium and Corinthian Hall can be regularly used for public events.
The Cast Aside show was “a big and exciting first step,” said Kahn, But it’s the first of many steps to come, and time is not the aging temple’s friend. “How much longer we have until we have to either step up or step out, we don’t know,” he added. “But it is serious. The preservation community understands and recognizes that it’s serious. We can’t fool around forever on this.”
The temple’s new embrace of public events is actually a return to its original mission, according to Kahn. “When the cornerstone was laid on that building, the whole city of Portland knew about it. There was a parade and the flying of the flag and top hats and everything,” he said. “It was never meant to be a Masons-only, closed-door thing. In World War II, U.S.O. dances were held there. When the building was first opened, they had meals that were open to the general public on certain occasions …. It really was a public resource, and that’s what we’re trying to get it back to again.”
For more information about the temple and future arts programming, visit portlandmasonic.com.