By W. Bro. Christopher Hodapp
author of Freemasons for Dummies
Last summer – the beginning of last summer, as a matter of fact – I stacked a dozen bags of mulch and topsoil next to my garage. Now, I had every intention of spreading that stuff all over my garden. I had big plans, but I got sidetracked. Things happened, and there are loads of really outstanding excuses as to why I never got around to it. So they sat there. All summer, fall and winter. They’re still there. As I write this, I figure it’s been about 270 days since I put them there. I see them every single day of my life. I walk right past them twice a day. The fact is; I don’t notice them anymore. They’re torn now, leaking and ugly, providing fodder and a new home for the chipmunks. They’re an eyesore. I’m sure they’re responsible for plummeting property values in my neighborhood.
Well, perhaps it’s not that drastic, but you get my point.
Which brings me to the discussion of our Masonic Temples. I joined a suburban Masonic lodge that had recently moved to an office building put up in the 1960s. I joined what I knew was the oldest, largest and greatest gentlemen’s fraternity in the world. So, when I walked into my lodge for the first time, I was a little surprised at how shabby it all looked. The walls were covered in sickly, institutional green wallpaper from the early days of the space program. The lobby and lounge area were decorated with two mismatched and startlingly horrific couches that no penniless college student would have had in his apartment. A pittance of library books was moldering on collapsing particleboard shelves. The carpets were worn clear through to the concrete floor in some places, which were a little hard to see because of the broken light fixtures. Still, it was not an especially prosperous lodge, so I knocked it up to the place having fallen on hard times.
Months later, I strolled into the once-impressive downtown Temple that is home to ten lodges and many appendant groups, as well as our Grand Lodge office. That’s when I came to the realization that the problem is endemic throughout the Masonic fraternity. Low-wattage light bulbs installed in every room to save money cast a dim, pallid glow over the whole place. I saw peeling plaster and paint. Couches purchased in the 1930s with broken legs, held up by bricks. An auditorium that had sat unused for almost 40 years, filled with old files and trash. No climate control, rendering it uninhabitable for almost five months out of the year, making it an eight-story Petri dish for mold and mildew. In a word, it stank.
Criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling developed the `broken windows’ thesis to explain the growth of crime and decay in urban areas that are plagued by vandalism and unkempt property. The theory goes that if a building has broken windows, graffiti on the walls and trash in the foyer, it encourages – nay, invites – vandalism, crime and further deterioration. If the landlord doesn’t fix the problem immediately, he’s a big part of the problem, because he is providing an atmosphere of decay for the whole neighborhood, whose inhabitants will come to believe their community is a lost cause.
Broken windows are more than just bleak and ugly pockmarks. Sixty years ago, a broken window would get a kid in serious trouble. Neighbors would round up the miscreant and there would be a price to pay for causing the damage. But the proliferation of broken windows, with no consequences for the offenders, signals a loss of control, a lack of caring, and a devastating loss of pride.
I contend that the same theory can be applied to our aging, decaying Masonic buildings. The more we neglect our Temples on the outside, the more they rot spiritually on the inside, spiraling into lethargy and failure. One of the most misunderstood phrases in Masonry is that the fraternity regards the internal and not the external qualifications of a man, and we’ve gone on to believe it about our Temples. The truth is that what is on the outside is a reflection of what goes on inside. We’ve been breaking our own windows. And it’s high time we got in trouble for it.
Our grandfathers and great grandfathers built these magnificent monuments to Masonry. In 1892, the Freemasons of Chicago built the tallest skyscraper in the world, 22 stories high, and it remained the tallest building in Chicago for more than 30 years. In 1926 the Masons of Detroit opened the largest Masonic building in the world, home to almost thirty different Masonic bodies, with room for a total of fifty. It had more than a thousand rooms, three auditoriums including one that seated 4,100 people, restaurants, ballrooms, hotel rooms, a barber shop, even an indoor pool. They believed “build it and they will come.” They donated lavishly to their fraternity and constructed splendid Temples for us, designed to last for generations as proud symbols of Freemasonry. And they spent lots of their own money, at a time when there were no tax incentives to do so; nor were there social safety nets for their retirements. Yet, they still gave much in both time and treasure to Freemasonry for these places we now treat with such slovenly and appalling neglect. What our forefathers constructed for the Ages, we now scornfully dismiss as white elephants.
In the effort to be politically correct, we don’t call them Temples anymore, but our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers sure did. These were Temples to the ideals of Freemasonry. Great things went on inside of them, and the community knew who and what the Freemasons were and what they stood for. As America expanded and new towns were founded, the Masonic Temple and the local church were some of the first buildings erected. The Masonic Temple was vital to a community. Balls were held there. Politicians spoke there. Visiting celebrities and luminaries were feted there. Today, thousands of people drive past our faceless buildings and never know what they are. Ask a hundred people in your town if they know where the Masonic lodge is, and you’ll be depressed beyond belief.
These are not white elephants, my brothers. These are our Temples, our heritage. They are priceless, irreplaceable treasures. And we throw them away now like they don’t matter, like they are not worth fighting for. We are murdering our own posterity out of sheer Scrooge-like stinginess, as if we don’t believe in ourselves and in our fraternity anymore. Instead, we believe the myth spun by the popular press that we’re dying, nothing but a sad collection of old men in decaying halls. That IS what they say about us, and we go right on giving them little evidence to the contrary.
The men who built these Temples only wanted us to do one thing: treat them with respect. Maintain them. Paint the walls every once in a while. Keep the light bulbs changed. Replace a carpet when it gets worn out. Reupholster a chair when it becomes torn or better yet, replace it. No one is asking us to build new Temples. The least we can do is protect them until a new generation comes along that cherishes them as our grandfathers did. But as every year ticks by and one more Temple goes away, we will never get them back. And we certainly won’t ever have the vision or the guts to build another.
Lodges that sit, year after year, whining that no one is showing up, yet failing to change one single aspect of the way they do things, are not just shooting themselves in the foot. They are taking careful aim at their own heads and blasting away. When new men see these tumble-down places, so obviously uncared for by our own members, why would they want to join us? And if they do join and are treated like greedy, bratty interlopers for daring to suggest spending any money, they won’t come back.
When lodges fail to attract new men, it is bad leadership. When lodges lose men after they join, it is bad leadership. When lodges let their buildings fall down around their heads while they hoard money for some nebulous future disaster, it is bad leadership.
What has happened to the philanthropic brethren in this fraternity, the men who thought so much of it that they gladly and lavishly donated to build these places? My own lodge’s original three-story brick building was entirely financed by one individual brother’s gift in 1907 of what would today amount to almost $700,000. We stopped asking our members for money for our own Temples long ago in favor of our Masonic Homes, the Shrine Hospitals, the Dyslexic Centers, the CHIPs programs, the York Rite Charities, and more. But as wonderful as those programs are, we are making a big mistake if every penny we have goes into them. Our institutionalized charities have robbed us of the first duty we have as Masons – namely, to look after each other, and to keep Freemasonry safe and proud and strong for our members and for the next generation. Or a simpler way of putting it is; we don’t ask anymore. We don’t ask ourselves to step up to the plate to collect $2000 for carpeting, or $4000 for a furnace, or $10,000 for a parking lot, or a million for a new building. Churches do, and so do every other kind of community organization, from YMCAs to country clubs. So did Lodges, once. Why don’t we now? Do we think so little of our fraternity now? Is it not worthy now? What has happened to our pride?
And don’t think it’s because our lodges have 300 members but only 10 ever show up. If you look at your old minutes, Masters were lamenting tiny turnouts at the height of the building boom in the 1920s. In those days, just being a card carrying Mason still required certain responsibilities to the lodge, responsibilities we don’t ask of our stay-at-homes these days.
Don’t misunderstand – not every clapboard lodge building from the 1920s necessarily needs to be preserved, any more than my rural uncle’s outhouse from the same era. One neighbor’s historic landmark is another’s ramshackle, pigeon-infested eyesore. In a lot of cases, we really do have too many lodge buildings. We don’t walk or ride a horse to the Stated Meeting anymore, so we no longer need a lodge every five miles as the crow flies. It is a far better use of our resources for there to be many smaller lodges that meet in one common Temple.
If we don’t present a dignified face to the outside world and provide meeting places that our old and new members can be proud of, we are slitting our own throats. It is better for us to meet in a hotel ballroom than in a fallen-down barn of a place that we refuse to maintain. At least a hotel will keep it clean, climate-controlled and well lit. But if we have any desire to really rebuild this fraternity, our Temples need to regain their place at the center of our communities, as they were 60, 80 and a hundred years ago. They need to be places we want to come to, and bring our friends and families to. They need to be comfortable and inviting, places where brethren want to congregate before and after meetings, instead of eating, meeting and fleeing. That isn’t going to happen with $45 annual dues and no strategic financial planning for the future.
There are happy stories in Freemasonry about some of our Temples around the country. Visionary men are now transforming the downtown building I spoke of earlier in this piece. Capital campaigns and a 501c3 tax-exempt foundation have been created, and they are seeking donations and community participation. Dancing, theatrical and singing groups are now renting the auditorium, and they see more potential for the space than the last four decades of Masons did, under whose noses it sat unused and neglected. It sat unused because we walked past it for forty years and never even saw it any more, like those bags of mulch in my front yard. But now that there is new life in the building, the resident Lodges are awakening. Checkbooks are opening. Lodge rooms have been plastered and painted, furniture has been bought, social rooms have been redecorated, and there’s even a rumor of air conditioning coming to this Temple nearly a century after it was built. Just as broken windows encourage rot, investment and vision are now encouraging growth.
And something even more important.