After 86 Years, still "Square, Level and Plumb."
The ceremony was filled with ritual and symbolism. The "Great Architect of the Universe" was invoked and a cornerstone was placed in position. Tools of the craft were used in the ceremony: the square, the level and the plumb, each an implement of Masonry, and each representing moral attributes as well. Corn, wine and oil were poured on the stone signifying bounty, joy and peace.
As in the original ceremony, on completion of each segment the Masons concluded that the craftsmen had done their job well, then in unison chanted "so mote it be," meaning "so it is." For those fortunate enough to witness the event, it was a solemn, moving and truly unforgettable experience.
Established over 600 years ago, Freemasonry is claimed to be the oldest fraternal organization in the world. It first appeared in this area in 1798, the Grand Master was John Patterson and meetings were held in Joshua Whitney's log cabin.
As the organization grew, meetings were held in several buildings around town. In 1898 a Masonic Temple was built on Chenango Street which served as headquarters until it was destroyed by fire in 1919. Finally, in 1922 a new Masonic Temple was constructed on the corner of Main and Murray Streets.
Designed by Walter H. Whitlock and Charles H. Conrad, the building, with its classical six-column portico has elements of "Art Moderne" style. Inside was a large theater, two lodge rooms were located on the second floor, upper floors held recreational rooms and a grand ballroom.
In later years the theater was rented out for concerts, Broadway performances and other events. Dances were held in the ballroom. During the 1960's and 1970's it was home to the Tri-Cities Opera and Summer Savoyards. Local musician Eric Ross remembers seeing opera great Placido Domingo in a Tri-Cities Opera production at the Masonic Temple.
With declining Masonic membership, in the mid 1980's a plan was developed to renovate the upper floors into apartments for senior housing. Construction began and was well under way when, in 1990, funding came to a halt and the project was abruptly abandoned.
Shortly after that the Masons moved out and in December of 2000 the building was sold at auction. Former Mayor Richard Bucci announced at the time that the new owner, a development group in Sarasota, Florida, which also owned the Grand Royale Hotel and the Drazen Building on State Street, planned to convert the Masonic Temple into student housing.
In 2001 Binghamton University Administration announced that the student housing plan was in its final stages, stating that the building "was already separated into apartments 10 years ago," and it "has a common area large enough to fit a basketball court."
It was not to be. Owner of the building David Band recalls that after the sale some structural work was done, the roof was repaired and the building was secured. "Then the economy turned and the project was put on hold," he said. Now he is interested in selling the property.
Today the grand entrance and the theater are filled with debris: piles of wooden seats, cabinets, construction material, pianos, toilets, an organ console… everything but the kitchen sink. Make that everything INCLUDING the kitchen sink - at least three of them can be found in the rubble.
In the pitch black theater a flashlight shows walls that are stripped bare, the stage that once supported lavish operatic productions is littered with trash. This grand hall, once filled with music, laughter and applause, is cold, dark and silent.
The upper floors look like a work in progress. Walls have been demolished, new walls have been erected, electrical and plumbing work is unfinished. New windows are in place, bathtubs have been framed in. Piles of lumber and drywall sit waiting for workers to return - workers that left the job nearly twenty years ago.
Copper plumbing has been removed, presumably by vandals. In the catacombs beneath the auditorium a ladder stands below an open window making for easy access by nocturnal visitors.
Other than some architectural detail in the theater, there is little evidence of the building's original Masonic use. But on the top floor, in the midst of partially completed housing units, the old "Doric Room" remains somewhat intact.
With its arched ceiling, a stage at one end and elevated seating along each side, the Doric Room was used for Masonic meetings and ceremonial events.
I left the Masonic Temple with a few impressions. The building is a magnificent structure. It has a rich history and for 70 years provided a great service to this community. Today, the interior is a mess. With no climate control, 18 years of exposure to the elements has taken its toll. But the building itself appears to be structurally sound.
Outside I went to the northeast corner of the building to look for the cornerstone. There it was, engraved with a date and name of the Masonic Grand Master. On July 22, 1922, a ceremony took place at that very spot. The Great Architect of the Universe was invoked and the cornerstone was placed. It was positioned by square, level and plumb. It was sprinkled with corn, wine and oil.
Today, in spite of years of neglect the building stands strong and proud, ready for its next use.
The craftsmen did their job well.
So mote it be.