Columbus, Ohio USA
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York Masonic Temple Goes Condo
as Masons celebrate 200 years of Freemasonry in Ohio
by Jennifer Hambrick
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© Contemporary photos by Darren Carlson
Historical photos courtesy of Grand Lodge
York Masonic Temple, circa 1960s.
A historic Short North area building and former Masonic stomping ground is getting renovated and going public in a move that might bring much needed attention to the territory between the South Campus Gateway and Fifth Avenue.
The vintage 1914 three-story York Masonic Temple on High Street, just north of Fifth Avenue, is being converted into upscale condominiums. Joe Armeni, a specialist in Short North real estate with Re/Max City Center, owns the building and is overseeing its redevelopment according to designs drawn up by the Columbus architectural firm Behal, Sampson and Dietz. Armeni says the building has good bones.
“It’s built like a fortress,” Armeni said, “two-and-a-half-foot-thick walls, marble floors.”
The development, which will be called the York on High Brownstones and Lofts, will offer 25 one- and two-bedroom units ranging in price from $159,000 to $349,000. Every unit will have a designated parking space, either in the building’s outdoor lot or in a new garage at the east end of the building.
The entrances to the brownstone apartments on the lowest level will be carved into the red brick walls of the building’s north face, and each will be covered by a stylized porch roof. The upper two floors will be converted into units with loft space. Some top-floor units will have views of downtown Columbus, and one will have a deluxe stained-glass interior skylight illuminated by fluorescent lighting.
Armeni says he is taking pains to retain as much of the lodge’s original decorative features as possible. The development’s most dramatic unit, on the middle level behind most of the building’s west face, will include not only loft space in one of its two ample bedrooms, but also the York Lodge’s original green- and orange-hued stained-glass windows, white marble flooring and most of its decorative woodwork, as well as the original brass doorknobs bearing the Masonic square and compass emblem.
Re/Max City Center bought the property in 2005 from Buckeye Real Estate. The renovation work began in September 2007, and Armeni says a model will be open in April.
York Temple had been home to the York Lodge #563 from 1915, when the temple was dedicated, to 2002, when the lodge voted to sell the property. The future residents of York on High Brownstones and Lofts will see trendy, light-flooded residences that nod to the past. But the former York Temple building will continue to tell the story of more than a century of Freemasonry in Columbus.
A New Temple
When York Lodge was chartered in 1891, it was not the first Masonic lodge in Columbus, but it was the first one north of the railroad tracks that coalesced at the old Union Station. As such it was a fair distance north of downtown Columbus, then not much larger than the postage stamp-sized knot of government and commercial interests that is Capitol Square.
York Lodge came about at a time when horses and carriages traversed brick or stone city streets, and a ride to outlying towns like Worthington or Hilliard, where other Masonic Lodges had already sprung up, was a good day’s travel. It was also a time when life’s safety net was woven of the charity of one’s family, neighbors and parish church, not the lifeless calculations of Social Security, health insurance and retirement accounts.
Joe Armeni has taken pains to retain as much of the lodge's original decorative features as possible in the York on High Brownstones and Lofts, including original green- and orange-hued staned-glass windows and white marble flooring and most of its decorative woodwork.
The men who formed the York Lodge – named after York, England, a famous center of Freemasonry in Northern England – had been members of a lodge that met in the old Masonic Temple on E. Town Street. They were Masons embracing not only the tenets of charity and brotherly love but also a dramatically enacted ritual still fiercely guarded by those today. They broke away from the lodge, but not its temple, when the Town Street lodge had enough men from Columbus’ North Side to warrant starting a new lodge in their own part of Columbus. Those who could afford the $3 yearly dues and the high fees for degree conferral (as much as $15 for the Entered Apprentice degree) continued to meet as the York Masonic Lodge at the Town Street temple until 1893, when the group moved to meeting rooms above a hardware store at the corner of High Street and Fifth Avenue.
The Masons’ fundamental goal was to make good men better. York Lodge was strict in imposing punishments when the behavior of its members fell out of line with this goal or behaved in ways unbefitting the fraternity. Lodge record books indicate that more than a few Masons were called on the carpet or even expelled from the lodge for delinquent payment of dues. Those who engaged in “unmasonic conduct,” such as one brother’s being “disgracefully intoxicated at various occasions and at various places” in 1897, brought “disgrace and reproach upon the lodge,” and, after an appropriate Masonic tribunal, could be punished by expulsion.
By the end of 1901, the York Lodge’s treasury boasted $23,317, and its membership had grown to over 400 members. York Lodge brethren had long extended their individual and collective financial support in charity to fellow members and their families, and did so again in 1904, when the lodge contributed $16 toward funeral expenses for one brother and $21 toward nursing care for another. In 1906, York Lodge made a $50 donation to aid the victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and throughout its history gave sizeable donations to widows of deceased members.
In 1907, the York Lodge moved north on High Street to the corner of High and Smith Place, where, for about $5,000, it bought a building directly across the street from the future site of York Temple. Still, the brethren longed for a proper Masonic temple, one that would measure up to temples in Cleveland and Cincinnati and offer sufficient dimensions for enacting lodge rituals and hosting social events.
In 1914, with more than 1,000 members, York Lodge needed a larger facility. Groundbreaking took place in May 1914 on the 50-by-130-foot, $72,000 York Temple on a parcel of land on the east side of High Street.
At the time, the members of York lodge could scarcely have imagined ever needing anything more. The dark brick structure housed a kitchen, dining room and pool room in its basement and dumbwaiters that could lift food and dishes to and from the ballroom and lodge room on the upper two floors. The lodge room itself, on the uppermost level, was designed to precise Masonic specifications and contained the necessary platforms and altar, above which was a brilliant skylight of greenish-brown stained glass. Brethren who jumped off the High Street streetcar in front of the temple would see similar stained-glass windows as they entered through the temple’s west door into a vestibule with white marble floors and walls braced with dramatic dark woodwork. It was a spectacular temple; one King Solomon himself might even have envied.
Charity and the World Beyond
York Lodge Masons had always helped to create a safety net from and for the larger world around them through charitable contributions and social networking. In April 1917, the lodge discussed its commitment to join a coalition of Masonic lodges in Columbus to encourage Franklin County farmers to grow more potatoes. None of the current York Lodge leaders knows precisely why, and no one today can plausibly connect the dots between increased central Ohio potato production and support for the war then ravaging Europe. Still, the effort seems clearly motivated by a desire to contribute to the greater good.
“A lot of fraternal organizations like the Masons sprung up to benefit society. We didn’t have Social Security and all these support groups, so a lot of times people turned to church, family and friends for support,” said current York Lodge Secretary Bill Hochstettler. “Even today a lot of the things we support come through our connections. A member will come in and say, ‘Here’s an organization that needs our help. Can we get behind them and help them?’”
Original brass doorknobs bear the Masonic square and compass emblem.
To this end, the Masons have long given money not only to needy friends and families of other Masons, but also to charitable organizations. In recent years, the York Lodge members have contributed time and funding to support the Columbus Learning Center for Dyslexia, in Dublin. For the last two years the lodge has sponsored a little league baseball team, providing volunteer coaches and funds for uniforms and other equipment. One York Lodge member ran with lodge sponsorship in a recent Race for the Cure. The York Lodge has been a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics.
Charity was relatively easy when the York Lodge’s membership was on the upswing. In 1922, a mere seven years after York Temple was completed, the lodge was already discussing whether to renovate the current temple or build a new one. Hochstettler surmises that, with just over 2,000 members, the lodge had again outgrown its meeting space. In addition to regular lodge meetings and the occasional lodge funeral, York Temple was also home in the 1920s and later decades to a dance series that drew large crowds and netted the lodge more than $1,000 each year. The popularity of the dance series was a sign of the time.
“Back in the old days there were a few places people would go: the lodge or church, or a school function,” said Ishmael R. “Doc” Burtnett, the senior-most York Lodge Past Master.
“When we didn’t have instant entertainment with televisions, it was not uncommon at an event to have in excess of 400 people in attendance.”
So great was the social appeal of lodge membership that in 1924 York Lodge and two other Columbus Masonic lodges purchased a tract of land on N. High Street in Worthington for use as picnic and recreation grounds. Swimming facilities were developed along a short stretch of the Olentangy River at the property’s western edge, and a dance pavilion and nine-hole golf course were installed. Dances at the York Lodge Country Club – open to the public – attracted people from all over the state. By 1929, Columbus-area Masons had established a Masonic Recreational Ball League, which the York Lodge considered joining. The league was yet another way the Masons tried to maintain interest among younger members, and they were successful: new members joined York Lodge every year in an age before television had largely replaced socializing.
Teaching the Craft, Losing the Battle
By 1926, York Lodge had raised a generation of mature Masons who had worked through the ranks of Masonic degree work and achieved a measure of skill in the craft. That year the lodge leadership announced its inauguration of a school of instruction in the Masonic craft and ritual. There was some danger to continuing the oral tradition of one-on-one instruction, and the schools were intended to standardize how the craft was transmitted.
“If a guy wanted to learn a particular part (of the lodge ritual), he would sit with a man and the man would teach it to him,” Hochstettler said. “But as we all know from the game of telephone, things get corrupted.”
Hochstettler says that most lodges now have printed rituals for members to follow. Still, some aspects of the ritual are open to interpretation.
“It’s like doing a play,” Hochstettler said. “The playwright specifies certain things, but we all know that Shakespeare can be done many ways.”
The York Lodge Brethren who started their school of instruction in 1926 as new members were practically pouring though their doors could not have known that lodge membership would peak, at 2,224, only two years later.
1929 was the first year of what would become a slow but steady decline in lodge membership to the present day. Younger men simply weren’t filling the voids created by the deaths of older members.
Even as membership was declining, York Lodge continued its tradition of charity during the Great Depression, giving aid to families in need, and into the 1940s, when lodge members paid $20 to send care packages to Masonic brethren and their families in war-torn Europe and contributed $25 to the Red Cross.
The drop in lodge membership throughout the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s meant that less money in the form of dues was available each year for maintaining the aging York Temple. After Columbus’ Near North Side had slipped into disrepair in the 1970s, some members no longer felt safe going to meetings at York Temple. Even as the Short North area south of Fifth Avenue was being rehabbed in the 1980s and 1990s and, later, the area around 11th Avenue was raised into the retail and entertainment haven that is the South Campus Gateway, no developer magically appeared to refurbish the no man’s land between 11th and Fifth avenues where the York Temple sits. The lodge sold the temple in 2003 and moved to its new home at the Grand Lodge in Worthington.
“We were probably spending $37,000 a year just to keep the doors open,” said York Lodge Past Master Chad Simpson of his lodge’s last days at York Temple. “Parts of the building needed repair. Some of the younger members really wanted to know what needed to be done. A contractor told us it would cost $600,000 to repair what was broken. To completely restore the building it would cost $1.2 million. Part of what we do is give to charity. It just didn’t seem a very Masonic way of spending money.”
Simpson says the lodge invested the money it made from selling the temple, and now contributes an average of $40,000 to charity each year. Selling the temple may have enabled the lodge to live out the Masonic mission more fully, but it wasn’t easy for some members.
“It was a very emotional decision to sell,” Hochstettler said. “All of our money was going into maintaining that building. We were just not able to utilize that building to its potential.”
To this end, Simpson, at least, thinks the York on High Brownstones and Lofts are a step in the right direction.
“Our hope was not to leave some kind of eyesore, but that (York Temple) would be used for something productive in the community,” Simpson said. “I think the members of the lodge would be pleased that it will be used for something productive. To have homes or condos that close to that kind of a community, a growing area there with lots of good stuff going on, sounds like a great use for that building. It was our home for our fraternity, so it can be someone else’s home, it’s still within that same spirit.”
The Future of Freemasonry
Today York Lodge has about 880 members, a far cry from its more than 2,000 members of 1928. The average age of its membership is 65, and that of its active participants hovers around 50. While convenient entertainments like television and home videos may account for sluggish new membership rates, other factors, including the order’s age-old gender and racial divides and its reputation as a furtive organization may also deter people from joining.
Ground-breaking ceremony for York Temple on May 23, 1914. The kneeling man with the long white beard and second to the left of the man holding the shovel is Joseph Cratty, the first Worshipful Master of York Lodge.
Freemasonry has always excluded women, and even its auxiliary organization, the co-ed Order of the Eastern Star, has the requirement that its members have a blood or marital connection with a Mason. A co-Masonic order, in which men and women serve equally, has existed since the middle of the nineteenth century, but it is not considered part of the mainstream Masonic tradition in America.
Hochstettler says York Lodge has not officially discussed the Masonic gender divide, much less possibly becoming a co-Masonic lodge, but believes eventually he and his brethren will need to in order to attract new members and make Free-masonry more family friendly. He also would like to see the Masonic traditions that run parallel along racial lines unite and create more racially diverse lodges.
“We need to come forward and be together more rather than being parallel systems,” Hochstettler said. “Simpson pointed out that York Lodge’s membership already includes men of various religious and ethnic or racial groups. “As for women, there is no philosophical or intellectual reason why women couldn’t be Freemasons, but I think that the Lodge serves an important purpose of providing an environment where men can be men in a positive way,” said Simpson.
But perhaps the largest obstacle to attracting new members exists in the form of the conspiracy theories about Masonic world domination and the like that run rampant in (at least) American culture and now across the Internet. The order’s reputation in the popular imagination as a secret organization that quietly backs covert government plans conjures images of a Mafia-like group that, once you join, you can never truly leave behind. Masons, of course, deny all such theories, claiming that the Freemasonry is not a secret organization, but an organization with secrets.
“Some of the ceremonies are private and some are public,” Simpson said. “It does pique a lot of interest, but when you’re a member of the fraternity and have witnessed them, it’s laughable that you can go on the Internet and read that we have helped Satan ruin the universe.”
Then there are the theories that Masonry is its own religion or a nihilistic anti-religion. Hochstettler thinks such faulty assumptions about Freemasonry’s philosophical basis and ritualistic traditions may well prevent people from joining.
“What people don’t understand, they tend to mistrust, and unfortunately a lot of people have exploited Freemasonry to further their own causes,” Hochstettler said. “Some religions attack Freemasonry and say a man can’t be a member of this church if he’s a Freemason, (that) they’re incompatible. We get criticized for being universal in that we accept any man who believes in the Supreme Being. People have also argued the other way, that we’re a religion. No we’re not. We don’t have a theology, we don’t offer salvation.”
Despite these and other challenges the York Lodge and other Masonic lodges have faced in obtaining new members, Hochstettler and other York Lodge leaders think the future of Freemasonry is bright, though not brilliant, because its charitable and ritualistic aspects will continue to attract people.
“I think (Freemasonry) will continue to exist, but I think it is never going to be the big organization that it was,” Hochstettler said. “I think there is a certain segment of the population that enjoys this kind of work and the Scottish Rite offers an opportunity to be more theatrical. The degree work is presented in plays, so those of us who are frustrated actors and don’t want to be community theater, this is a chance to stand up in a safe environment with our brothers and risk all.”
On June 21, members of the York Lodge and other local Masonic lodges will parade down High Street to Capitol Square and re-enact the laying of the cornerstone of the capitol building to celebrate the bicentennial of Freemasonry in Ohio. As they approach this milestone in Masonic history, York Lodge members also are reflecting on the bigger picture, the tradition of Freemasonry worldwide and the promise it holds for the men who practice the craft. The conversion of York Temple, home to Masons for many years, into upper-end condos won’t mean the end of the Masons or even of York Lodge. In fact, in bringing all types of people together to live harmoniously under one roof, the temple building’s new purpose might just carry the Masonic torch forward into Ohio’s third century of Freemasonry.
“The awesome story is of the fraternity that existed there for so long,” Simpson said. “Freemasonry’s gift to society has been that men can come together despite their economic, ethnic or religious differences and enjoy that fellowship that is exactly what is needed to keep society going in a positive direction.”
© 2008 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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