Like a spouse you take for granted, a historical building can go unnoticed for decades. Until it’s time to say goodbye.
Well, not exactly goodbye. The Masonic Temple on Church and Mill Streets is undergoing yet another transformation, a point at which to ponder the past.
Nearly a hundred years old now, this handsome building once housed an organization of men who espoused an enlightened way of thinking.
Completed in mid-1922, its arrival on the scene was announced by The Richland Democrat (precursor of The Richland Observer) in January of that year, publishing a photograph of the Masonic Temple with this headline:
Richland Center’s New Masonic Temple
Nearly Completed at a cost of $55,000
A week later, The Republican Observer (also a precursor of today’s Observer, as both The Richland Democrat and The Republican Observer merged in 1962), also published the photo, with the following caption:
“...The first floor will house the bowling alleys, the billiard and card rooms, baths and heating plant. On the second floor will be the dining room, dance hall and kitchen. The third floor will be given over to the lodge rooms...”
The inauguration in July was a dazzling affair, this time reported in the more widely circulated Wisconsin State Journal. Its July 16th Sunday edition published an article headlined “Richland Center Masons’ New Temple”. It began, “Several thousand Masons from all parts of the state, accompanied by bands, attended the dedication ceremonies of Richland Center’s new Masonic temple, Friday... [at a cost of] $70,000... The building is three stories high, of Ionic architecture ...The dedication was observed by a parade of 1,000 Masons...”
Light and color certainly marked the arrival of this esteemed structure, in contrast to the shroud of secrecy surrounding the rites and rituals of the Knights Templar.
In order to lift this shroud in part and get a peek into the Freemasons world, I borrowed a page from the book written by Malcolm Duncan in 1866, called “Duncan’s Masonic Ritual and Monitor”. The third section refers to the initiation of a candidate to the First Degree of Masonry.
Seven Freemasons, consisting of “six Entered Apprentices and one Master Mason...is the requisite number to constitute a Lodge of Masons, and to initiate a candidate...They assemble in a room well guarded from all cowans and eaves-droppers, in the second or third story...” which in turn explains why the Richland Center Masonic Temple had recreational and dining facilities on the first and second floors, and all the lodges only on the third floor.
The rituals may have been obscured from view, leaving most people in the dark about the goings on within lodges. Yet the movement itself was a beacon of light. In Dan Brown’s book, “The Da Vinci Code”, the brotherhood was referred to as the Illuminati, or enlightened ones.
A work of fiction, one might protest. Possibly in response, an article in usnews.com back in 2009 explored Freemasonry’s impact on America, describing it as “richer and more significant than anything that entertainment or speculation would hold ... the first organization to espouse religious toleration and liberty.
The most famous Freemason in America, George Washington, himself espoused these ideals. He said, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens...”
According to the website of the Masonic Service Association of North America, “during the late 1700s it was one of the organizations most responsible for spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment: the dignity of man and the liberty of the individual, the right of all persons to worship as they choose, the formations of democratic governments, and the importance of public education. During the late 1800s and 1900s, Freemasonry grew dramatically.. [when] the government had provided no social ‘safety net’”. The Masonic tradition of founding orphanages, homes for widows, and homes for the aged provided the only security many people knew.”
Few Richland Center residents today know what this proud building once stood for, especially since it changed hands in the mid-1990s. Finding the place too big for their purposes, the Masons sold the building to three couples: the Lawrences, the Hendrickses and the Rewalds, who then offered the second floor as a banquet and events hall.
Many a happy event and concert did happen in what was recently known as Blue Highways, and that is what many of current area residents remember. Some used it for their wedding receptions and, every first Friday of the month, people could rely on an evening of good music and a hearty meal during Treasures Music night, thanks to Margie Ide.
Residing at the Temple
Today, upon entering the main doors of the Masonic Temple, you will still see the Masonic emblem painted on the wall by the ground floor staircase (and duplicated on the second floor staircase). This organizational coat-of-arms encompasses the “single most identifiable symbol of Freemasonry”, according to ancient-symbols.com. The architects’ or draftsmen’s tools are used to impart symbolic lessons in conduct. The Masons are directed to “square their actions by the square of their virtue” and to “circumscribe their desires and keep their passions within due bounds toward all mankind.”
This writer leafed over photos and articles about the temple at the Brewer Library’s Richland County History Room. One picture depicts the main lodge, circa 1930s. In front is a platform with a wooden panel behind and a sort of balcony overhead. On the platform were three chairs, from which the Master Mason and his two assistants would preside over the proceedings. When I went to take a look in late May, this platform could still be seen in its original location, sans the chairs.
Perhaps not for long. The new owners, Ed and Dixie Wynhoff, plan to transform the second and third floors into apartments, pending permits and the subsequent construction work. The apartments will certainly be located in one elegant edifice.
Even classier are the ideals of Freemasonry, let us not forget.
The people of this town will come and go. Even this building will one day go. But it once stood for religious tolerance, the dignity of man and individual freedom, ideals as relevant today as they were in our history, and held by Masons George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who were beacons of light.
May this light shine forth forever.