Duluth Masonic Temple

Duluth photographer Hugh McKenzie captured this image of Duluth’s 1905 Masonic Temple c. 1910. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

4 West Second Street | Architect: John J. Wangenstein | Built: 1904 | Extant

At the southwest corner of Lake Avenue and Second Street stands Duluth’s Masonic Temple. A building that houses one of the oldest organizations in Duluth—older, in fact, than the city itself. The building has lost some of its key external architectural elements over the years, but its interior still looks and functions as its builders intended well over 100 years ago. Remarkably, it still serves the organization that built it over 100 years ago, a rare occurrence in the life of a building. And, thanks to the efforts of St. Paul historian Rolf Anderson, the building has recently been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Masons have influenced Duluth since before there even was a Duluth. Pioneer Duluthians established Palestine Lodge No. 79 in the Zenith City on January 29, 1870, installing Colonel J. B. Culver as its first grand master. In March Duluth became a city, and in April many of these same people voted Culver in as Duluth’s first mayor.

Duluth’s second mayor, Clinton Markell, was also a Mason, as were many other community leaders over the years, including W. W. Spalding, William Sargent, Mayor Trevanion Hugo, Walter Van Brunt, Robert Whiteside, Bernard Silberstein, Robert Denfeld, and William McGonagle. As it was throughout the U.S., if you had business or political aspirations, you became a Mason.

Duluth’s pioneer masons built themselves a modest wooden temple at the northeast corner of Superior Street and Second Avenue East in the early 1870s. In 1889 they tore that building down to make room for the Temple Opera Block, a combination Masonic temple and office building that also served as the first home of the Duluth Public Library. Behind it they built the Temple Opera House, which also housed the Mason’s Scottish Rite, a theater used by Masons to perform short plays that serve as lessons in Masonry as individuals work there through the thirty-three degrees of the Scottish Rite. The building was technically owned by a group called the Temple Association, and its trustee was Judge O. P. Stearns, first judge in St. Louis County, former senator, and a Duluth Mason. The Temple Association took out a mortgage with the Penn Mutual Life Association.

From 1890 to 1895, the Temple Opera House competed with the Lyceum Theatre over the title of Duluth’s most elegant performance space. Then, on October 12, 1895, the Temple Opera House went up in flames. Its grand auditorium and the Mason’s Scottish Rite were reduced to ashes and ruin, but the Temple Block survived thanks to a firewall between the structures. Still, it was the beginning of the end. Judge Stearns died the following June, just as the mortgage of $50,000 was due. Penn Mutual foreclosed on the building that December.

Time for a New Temple

In August of 1899 the building was sold to real estate mogul E. P. Alexander, A. M. Miller, and E. Z. Williams. Miller built the Lyceum Theatre and Williams was its manager. They had ideas about rebuilding the opera house. They also wanted to use the upper floors as a performance space, ultimately squeezing out the library and the building’s original intended tenants: the Masons. The Masons soon began looking for a building site, an architect, and financing for a new temple all their own.

While Duluth’s Masons were considering a new building, two of them were overseeing the construction of the city’s most iconic landmark. Thomas McGilvray and William Patton, Duluth’s city engineers who oversaw the construction of the aerial bridge, were both masons. In fact, it was McGilvray who first recognized Ferdinand Arnodin’s design for an aerial transfer bridge was the best solution to get people and goods across the Duluth Ship Canal. The two worked together in private practice as well. Patton was considered “one of the leading Masons of the world” when he died and was one of four charter members of the King Solomon Temple of England; two of the three others were U.S. presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

By 1902 Duluth’s Masons had put one of their own to work designing their new home, architect John J. Wangenstein. A native of Norway, Wangenstein would design many of Duluth’s iconic buildings, some of which still serve Duluth today including the DeWitt-Seitz Building, the Wolvin Building (now the Missabe Building), the Bridgman-Russell Building, and a number of East End mansions.

The Duluth Masonic Temple’s Blue Lodge. (Image: Rolph Anderson)

Wangenstein’s plans called for a Neoclassical building 120 feet by 90 feet standing three stories high above Second Street (and four stories above the alley behind the building) and faced with gray French pressed brick and red sandstone quarried at Siskiwit Point, Wisconsin. When complete its Second Street and Lake Avenue façades featured what the building’s historian Rolf Anderson describes as “extensive stonework with stone trim, lintels, belt courses, columns, capitals, pediments, and ornamentation.” That “ornamentation” included 25 stained-glass windows featuring Masonic designs and imagery. The dominant architectural elements were the three Moorish domes that occupied the southeast, northeast, and northwest corners of the roof.

By 1904 the building site was being cleared and a foundation was under construction. The cornerstone was laid on August 10, 1904, in an elaborate ceremony presided over by the Masonic Grand Master of Minnesota, Duluth’s own William A. McGonagle. According to Anderson, it all began with a parade:

The ceremony began with a procession that started at the old Masonic Temple on Superior Street and Second Avenue east. The procession included nearly 1,000 Masons from Duluth and other parts of the state, as well as a police escort and Flatten’s Third regiment Band. They proceeded on Superior Street to Fifth Avenue West, to First Street, to Third Avenue West, to Second Street West, and to the site of the new building where they were awaited by 2,000 spectators.

When the ceremony was over, contractor and Mason George Lounsberry put his crews to work. All of the subcontractors he hired—for plumbing, electricity, painting, etc.—were all Masons. The building, expected to cost $100,000 when finished and furnished, was complete by 1905.

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