Saturday, September 29, 2007

Masonic Preservation

A break with tradition
They hope to increase rentals, save historic building

"One of Fort Wayne’s grandest but most obscure historic gems is still open, and may even make a comeback, because its members knew when to cling to the past – and when to let go.

You can thank the liquor, really.

“Masons in America have been teetotalers, going back to the temperance movement of the 1840s,” said Mahlon Whitaker, chairman of a group formed last year to attract more people and investment to the Masonic Temple at 216 E. Washington Blvd. “We had opened parts of the building to the public (in the 1990s), but we couldn’t allow alcohol, so we ran into trouble. You probably wouldn’t rent it for a wedding if you couldn’t have a champagne toast. And we didn’t have a plan to raise money.”"

"Next month, however, the temple will host an event Whitaker hopes will generate as much as $60,000 for the building’s maintenance fund – something that would have been impossible had local Masons not received a three-year dispensation from the state organization to allow alcoholic beverages on the first two floors.

That dispensation allowed the temple to host a wine-tasting fundraiser earlier this month that will be followed Oct. 27 by what is being billed as the first annual Preservation Ball – a $125-per-person gala that will feature a silent auction, dinner catered by Club Soda, music, dancing, a Ben Franklin impersonator and, yes, even cocktails. Everybody knows auctions work best when bidders have a drink or two first."

"When the Temple’s cornerstone was set on Oct. 19, 1923, the 10,000 names on Masonic member rolls read like a local who’s who. With that many members, it was not hard to pay the bills and fill the huge building with events. But with just 1,000 local Masons today, the cavernous structure is often empty and shows signs of age its dwindling membership has not always been able to modernize or repair.

But it is those very anachronisms – original pool tables, furnishings, hardwood floors, plus decades-old furniture and decor – that give the temple its anachronistic charm. There is, quite simply, nothing remotely like it in Fort Wayne. From its pipe organ-equipped, old-English style auditorium to four distinctly decorated lodge rooms, the place is unique. And that makes it worth saving."

"“Fort Wayne is trying to rescue itself through downtown revitalization,” Whitaker said. “Most people don’t realize we’re here, but this is an incredible resource – and not at taxpayer expense. We want people to come, see, appreciate and use it.”"