Volume LVIIJanuary 2010Number 1

The New Masonic Temple from
Concept to Dedication 1865-1973

This is a summary of a paper presented by William L. Kingsbury, District Deputy Grand Master of Masonic District C and a Past Master of Melita Lodge No. 295, Philadelphia, to the Pennsylvania Lodge of Research. It is published in its entirety in Volume 3 of the Transactions of the Pennsylvania Lodge of Research.

The Masonic Temple in Philadelphia is a wonderful gift, of which you and I, as Pennsylvania Masons, are the beneficiaries. This national historic landmark was constructed through the painstaking efforts of our predecessors, notwithstanding daunting financial risks, upon the fraternal assurance that future generations would preserve it for their successors with the same selfless spirit and ambitious resolve with which they built it.

Prior to the construction of the Masonic Temple, the headquarters of the Grand Lodge was the Chestnut Street Masonic Hall, which was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1855. Within a decade, however, it became obsolete, lacking adequate space for lodge purposes and having chronic flooding problems in the basement apartments. In addition, portions of the Chestnut Street Masonic Hall were leased for commercial and residential purposes, and it was the desire of Pennsylvania Masons to construct a Masonic Temple to be used solely for Masonic purposes.

At the Quarterly Grand Communication in June 1865, the Grand Lodge appointed a committee to consider purchasing a lot "suitable for the erection of a Hall commensurate with the wants of the Fraternity." It envisioned a structure properly constructed, ornamented and ventilated, "'from turret to foundation stone,' appropriate to the distinct purposes of the Order and containing a library with the best literature and every book concerning the Masonic Fraternity, and conversation and reading rooms."

After investigating numerous potential sites, the committee was authorized to purchase the lots comprising the present site of the Masonic Temple at a price not exceeding $155,000. In December 1867, the committee proudly reported that it had consummated the purchase of the "solid lot of ground bounded by Broad, Juniper, Filbert and Cuthbert Streets, for the use of the Grand Lodge." The total purchase price was $153,000, $2,000 less than the amount authorized. The committee felt that such difference would be sufficient to demolish the existing structures and improve the site for construction. The Finance Committee remarked in its report that the lot purchased by the Grand Lodge was "far superior to any other in this City, both in the beauty of its location and in the facility of approach."

The committee requested proposals from "some of the most skillful architects, to furnish plans, specifications, and estimates" for the Masonic Temple. After thorough review, the committee unanimously recommended and the Grand Lodge approved the plan proposed by Bro. James H. Windrim. Grand Master Richard Vaux gave his enthusiastic approval of the project: "It was a unanimous declaration of the Craft in Pennsylvania that such an edifice should be built as would be in harmony with the history, character, increasing influence and high position of Freemasonry in Pennsylvania. The Subordinate Lodges have cheerfully consented to contribute all that has been asked of them for this purpose. Let us have then a New Temple for Pennsylvania, which expresses, in the language of architecture, the historic origin of our Order ... Let us have a Temple on which the student, the scholar and the craftsman from all nations and of all tongues may look and learn its purpose, and understand its origin, proclaimed by every word of its architectural language, from porch to pinnacle." The Grand Lodge formed the "Building Committee" and empowered it to employ an architect, superintendent and workmen to erect the Masonic Temple.

On June 24, 1868, the cornerstone of the New Masonic Temple was laid with impressive Masonic ceremonies. Grand Master Vaux said: "...The Temple we propose to erect ... will stand, as a refuge and a fortress of the Craft, like a great rock in a weary land. In its hallowed enclosure the light of Masonry will ever illumine those who seek virtue and knowledge ... Within this Temple our successors will assemble to work the same work we have performed as our fathers before us have done in their day and generation." But the Building Committee would face a number of challenges in connection with the construction of the Masonic Temple. Contractors failed to perform as expected. In some cases, suppliers were late in delivering materials and, in other cases, they delivered the wrong materials. Unfavorable weather delayed the construction schedule in the early years. In 1868, in connection with the excavation of the foundation for the North Tower, workers hit the "worst kind of quicksand" causing the foundation to be set at a depth of 31 feet, rather than 18 feet as planned.

Funding the project was another challenge. To pay for the construction, the Grand Lodge increased membership dues, the price of dispensations to pass the chair and the rental cost for the rooms at the Chestnut Street Hall. It was hoped the revenues generated by these actions, and the proceeds derived from the sale of "New Masonic Temple Bonds" and the Chestnut Street Masonic Hall would provide the revenue necessary to carry out the project. But these sources alone proved insufficient. To the dismay of the Committee on Finance, the Building Committee nevertheless charged headlong into the construction despite significant deficits in the construction budget. While the Committee on Finance called for an abrupt cessation of the work, the Building Committee awarded contracts for materials and services. The controversy between the Committee on Finance and the Building Committee was ultimately resolved on the floor of the Grand Lodge: The Grand Lodge determined to proceed with the ambitious construction schedule while aggressively raising the necessary funds through the sale to Masons and non-Masons of restructured, market-rate "New Masonic Temple Bonds." In order to do this, Bro. Richard Vaux led a successful lobbying effort for special legislation to remove the below market interest rate cap on such private bond financings.

Finances remained tight throughout the construction. At the June 4, 1873 Quarterly Grand Communication, the Committee on Finance requested permission to collect rents from the Subordinate Lodges still meeting at the Chestnut Street Masonic Hall quarterly, rather than annually, stating that without such permission, the Grand Lodge would fail to have the means to pay the semi-annual interest payments on the New Masonic Temple Bonds.

The records of the Trustees of the Building Fund reflect that it had received $1,566,912.82, of which $1,385,425 was from the issuance of the New Masonic Temple Bonds, $35,544.84 was from interest earned on temporary investments and $1,256.16 was from the sale of old materials. It had expended a total of $1,559,793.53, of which $156,793 was for the lot, $1,390,018.14 was for construction related expenses, $9,061.45 was for interest payable to the Grand Lodge, $3,750 was for brokerage commissions and $170.79 was for Trust related expenses. The Grand Lodge Charity Fund, the Steven Girard Trust and the Grand Lodge Sinking Fund all invested in the New Masonic Temple Bonds, as did 61 Subordinate Lodges, the Grand Chapter, 20 Mark Lodges, Chapters and Encampments, 42 lodges of "kindred societies," The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company and 330 individuals. Of the individual owners, 88 were women and 218 were men. The largest individual owner of the Bonds was not a Mason, neither were many others among the largest individual investors, evidencing "a degree of confidence in the credit of Masonic institutions scarcely to have been expected from the outside world." The last of the New Masonic Temple Bonds were redeemed in 1908. The Grand Lodge managed the debt carefully and never failed to make an interest payment.

The Masonic Temple was dedicated on Sept. 26, 1873, with lavish ceremonies including and an impressive Masonic procession.

The Building Committee gave its final report at the Annual Grand Communication on Dec. 27, 1873, by sharing its wish that: "[T]he Temple may long stand as a monument of the strength, stability, prosperity and energy of the Craft in Pennsylvania; and that enriched, from time to time as opportunity and resources may allow, with decorative adornments and works of art, it may become more beautiful and attractive from year to year; and as a centre and home for the association of the Craft to cluster about with cheering memories of pleasure and profit had within its walls."

We have been good stewards of the Masonic Temple. We have kept the building and its mechanical apparatus in good condition and repair. We have shunned the fads that caused other institutions with ornate buildings to paint over their murals and frescos. We have preserved the artistic and symbolic significance of the Masonic Temple. We have overcome disturbances associated with the connection of the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads underneath the foundation, and the demolition and construction on adjacent properties. The Masonic Temple is still used for the Masonic purposes for which it was intended.

The detailed records of the transactions of the Building Committee were diligently kept "so that, should the occasion present, they may at any future time be referred to without difficulty." And so they remain, reminders to us all, to honor that covenant of trust that our predecessors confidently confided in our care when making these great sacrifices and assuming these great risks. Let us cherish the Masonic Temple of which we are the stewards and custodians and preserve it for our successors and for the Masonic purposes for which it was dedicated.

If you have not yet visited the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, bring your family and friends for a tour! Call (215) 988-1917 for more information.

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