Duluth Masonic Temple

Several scenic backdrops come together to create the set of a “Persian Place” on the stage of the Masonic Temple’s Scottish Rite Auditorium. (Image: Rolph Anderson)

Inside the Masonic Temple

Although the building’s exterior was rather extravagant when it first went up, the true treasures were housed inside. A banquet hall in the basement had a capacity to seat 600 people and could be rented by the public.

A much more private space, the temple’s Blue Lodge was a ceremonial room, where worthy Masons are conferred with Craft degrees. Freemasonry considers the color blue a symbol of universal friendship and benevolence, as it is “the color of the vault of heaven.” Other than white, a Masonic Blue Lodge may only be decorated using blue.

As Anderson explains in his nomination, the Blue Lodge of Duluth’s Masonic Temple follows an architectural design prescribed in the mid-nineteenth century. It is a large, two-story room with a balcony on the northeast end of the room. To keep out outside noise (and perhaps prying eyes), the lodge has only one exterior wall, which when first built faced another building; the rest of the lodge’s walls abutt interior spaces.

An altar is placed in the center of the room, and lodge members are seated in chairs along the room’s walls, so that everyone in the room faces the alter—and one another. (The furniture is thought to be original to the lodge; it may in fact be the same furniture used in the Blue Lodge of the Temple Opera Block.) Greek and Egyptian themes decorate the room, and two freestanding columns hold scenic backdrops used in rituals of the York Rite. The Duluth temple has eight such backdrops, painted by Minneapolis’s Twin Cities Scenic Studios sometime between 1910 and 1920.

The scenic backdrops of the Blue Lodge are just a small part of the lodge’s collection of scenic backdrops. The building’s Scottish Rite Auditorium—which takes up nearly the entire south half the first floor—contains the largest collection of hand-painted drops in Minnesota that remain in use today.

The gallery and balcony of the 1905 Duluth Masonic Temple’s Scottish Rite Auditorium seen from the stage. (Image: Rolph Anderson)

The drops—made by Thomas G. Moses of the Mosman and Landis Scene Painting Studios of Chicago—are used in conjunction with Scottish Rite rituals and degree conferment as Masons work to achieve the thirty-three degrees of the Scottish Rite. When used in combinations containing up to six pieces, the drops created stage scenes depicting everything from caves, forests, gardens, waterfalls, Egyptian Temples, Gothic Cathedrals, a Persian palace, the Temple of Solomon, and even crucifixion. They work to dress a stage 50 feet wide by 30 feet deep.

The auditorium itself is fifty by sixty feet and reaches three stories high. The back of the auditorium contains a horseshoe-shaped balcony supported by three columns topped with Corinthian capitals with seating on step risers. More seating is located along rows beneath the balcony, but the auditorium floor is open to provide space for Scottish Rite rituals and can be used to add more seating using unfixed seating.

As he did on the building’s exterior, architect Wangenstein employed what Anderson calls the room’s hallmarks, “prominent architectural features and elaborate ornamentation.” One example of this is the auditorium’s ceiling. Its concave cornice has been stenciled with stylized lotus flowers, palmetto leaves, stars, and geometric shapes in green, blue, rose, and deep orange. At its center is a blue dome with a gold-painted sunburst at its apex representing, as Anderson explains, the heavens.

Serving Duluth for 115 Years

Palestine Lodge #79 first met in the new temple on February 6, 1905. A housewarming was held March 25 of the same year, with 2,000 people in attendance, most of whom were associated with freemasonry. New Year’s day 1906 saw the building’s first public reception. More than 3,000 people enjoyed music from three orchestras in the Scottish Rite Auditorium, Blue Lodge, and banquet room as they toured the facility and danced.

A pipe organ made by Chicago’s W. W. Kimball Company was installed within the Scottish Rite auditorium in 1908, after which the Temple offered free public concerts. These events became so popular that the Masons had to arrange for special performance for specifics groups. Crowds as large as 950 came to the Masonic Temple to enjoy performances by the Choral Society of Duluth, the High School Musical Society, and others.

The remarkable ceiling of the 1905 Duluth Masonic Temple’s Scottish Rite Auditorium. Note the Egyptian frieze. (Image: Rolph Anderson)

In 1910 Duluth’s Masons installed an Egyptian frieze along the upper wall of the Scottish Rite auditorium. Painted on linen, the frieze is five feet two-inches high and, except for the space just above the pipe organ, wraps around the entire stage and balcony. The images depict many Egyptian motifs, including scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It is thought that Thomas G. Moses, who painted the auditorium’s seen very, also created the frieze.

Though its use as a public performance space has waxed and waned over the years—and despite the decline of the influence of Freemasonry in Duluth and elsewhere—the 1904 Masonic Temple has served it tenants well over the past 110 years, although not without some significant changes. The Moorish domes that originally adorned the building’s rooftop were removed in the 1960s, perhaps in an attempt to “modernize” the building’s appearance. One story has it that the domes were thought to have been the cause of roof leaks, but after they were removed water continued to come into the building.

Many of its original windows are gone as well, their openings filled with concrete and glass blocks. Fortunately, all 25 original stained-glass windows remain intact. The most significant change to its exterior was the addition of an elevator along the building’s Lake Avenue façade in the 1980s. Contractors took care to make the elevator’s impact on the building as small as possible, going as far as tinting its concrete base to match the original sandstone.

Little has changed on the interior. Most of what has been augmented has occurred in the basement. Its ceiling was lowered and better ventilation added in the 1930s, and at one point a basement ladies reception room was lost when the kitchen was expanded. And of course the elevator addition caused changes inside as well.

Today the building’s banquet hall remains open to public rental, and in recent years the Scottish Rite has been used for local theater performances and movie screenings. Duluth’s Masons still use the building as it was first intended by their predecessors of 110 years ago, and it looks like they intend to keep using it for a while: Rolf Anderson’s excellent work placing the temple on the National Register of Historic Places ensures that it will serve Duluth for decades to come.

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