Get To Know Your Built Heritage #1 – Central Masonic Temple

Note: This is the first in a series of photo essays concerning existing built heritage in the City of Edmonton, both threatened, and thriving

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Central Masonic Hall as it fronts 100 Avenue, as seen in February 2015. Photo by Darren Kirby

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions floating around surrounding Freemasonry. A quick google will show many websites purporting conspiracy theories, the ‘Illuminati’, and other such crackpot ideas about Freemasonry running the world.  “The only conspiracy is what is in our hearts” says John McDermid, longtime Freemason, and member of an “alternative review committee” for the Freemason Hall.  The truth is that Freemasons are not much different than other community service clubs you may have heard of.  The difference between Freemasonry and the other clubs is their philosophy of but one aim: “To please each other and unite in the grand design of being happy and communicating happiness”.  No one really knows how long they’ve been around because their origins have been lost in time. They bill themselves as the largest and oldest fraternity in the world. The history of Freemasonry in Edmonton begins in 1893 with the fur trade and the Hudson’s Bay Company originating from Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Freemasons had a modest lodge on what is now 102 street (a replica now sits at Fort Edmonton Park), but growth of the fraternity necessitated a larger building. On September 9, 1910 there appeared in the Edmonton Bulletin a modest ad soliciting for subscriptions for shares, available for a, not trivial at the time, fee of $10. Subscriptions seem to have not sold briskly, as there was no movement on the project until 1929, when the current plot of land was purchased from a Dr. E. H. Braithwaite (who was a Freemason of Edmonton #7 Lodge), an interesting man who served as a medic in the N.W.M.P., was Alberta’s first coroner, and witnessed the hanging of Louis Riel.

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Original hand drawn and lettered south elevation by architect William Blakely. Now framed and hanging in the Masonic Temple. Photo by Darren Kirby.

The Freemasons hired noted local architect William Blakely (member of Ivanhoe #124 Lodge) to design the building. Blakey is also known for other notable Edmonton buildings including the original 1920 Edmonton Journal building, Christ Church Anglican Parish on 102 Avenue, the Garneau Theatre, and the Roxy Theatre, recent lost to fire. R. W. Ritchie was selected as the general contractor.  The ceremonial sod-turning took place on July 12, 1930, with Dr. Braithwaite manning the spade. After some preliminary construction work another ceremony was held on November 1, 1930 to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone, under which was placed some coins of the day, and a recent edition of the Edmonton Journal. Dignitaries at the ceremony included Premier J. E. Brownlee, Lt. Governor Dr. William Egbert, and acting mayor J. Collisson.

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The 1930 cornerstone laying ceremony. Photographer unknown.

The structure was built of steel and concrete, and has red facing brick. It was designed and built in a gothic revival style, as was befitting the Freemasons’ medieval heritage. The prominent south elevation contains six canopied niches, for which six statues were commissioned to a local stone carver. For unknown reasons the statues were never delivered, and today no one, including the Freemasons, have any idea what may have happened to them. The Hall was completed in 1931 at a final price of $170,000. It has 25,000 square feet of usable space in its four stories.

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The north Lodge room. Photo by Darren Kirby

The main floor of the building contains a modest entry foyer, a few offices and a library, and the main auditorium,  a grand room with a sizable stage, and ornate details and lighting fixtures. The room can fit 150 people comfortably, with another 50 in the balcony. The second floor contains meeting rooms and offices, and smaller practice Lodge Room. Moving up to the third floor reveals the two beautifully detailed main Lodge Rooms adorned with original mahogany woodwork, brass fittings, and immaculate stone tiles. Both the north Lodge Room and the smaller south room contain stained glass windows depicting Masonic regalia.

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South Lodge Room. Photo by Barry Ryziuk.

The fourth floor contains yet another meeting room as well as storage area. Down in the basement there is a very large kitchen and cafeteria, and a small private lounge for members. All the floors are connected by stunning oak and wrought iron staircases, as well as a rather interesting original elevator. Unlike many heritage properties in this city, the Freemasons and the hall’s board have been fantastic stewards of this building. It has obviously been very well cared for, and all the original flooring, fixtures, and ornamentation is intact from the buildings opening. There are no structural issues. That does not mean the building is not in jeopardy. Due to steadily increasing property values in the downtown core, and the fact that the hall is taxed as a commercial property , where it should be considered as an “not for profit” property. The only income the hall sees is modest fees from renting the main auditorium to the public, mostly for weddings, and members dues. John McDermid and other concerned individuals have been investigating various options for ensuring the future of the hall. He tells me the board has to make some tough choices. Some of the options considered have been investigating official heritage status to protect the building from redevelopment,  to try to get a break on taxes by way of being declared a “Not-for profit” property, or else completely opening up the hall to commercial purposes, perhaps leasing space inside to a pub or restaurant, which brings forth a lot more unforeseen challenges. You can help with these efforts by joining and participating with the “Save the Central Masonic Hall” Facebook page, by writing to the Central Masonic Hall Board offering your support, or by writing your City Council and bringing it to their attention. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-the-Central-Masonic-Temple-of-Edmonton/858907967466009?fref=nf — Written by Darren Kirby

What We’ve Lost #1 – Gem Theatre

Note: This is the first in a series of photo essays concerning built heritage lost to neglect, fire, or redevelopment in and around the city of Edmonton.

The Gem awaits its fate stoically on its last day

Marquee already removed, the Gem stoically awaits its fate on the chilly, foggy morning of February 20, 2010, its last day

Developed by James Goodridge and his son Leonard whom owned most of the land in this block (and also developed the Goodridge Block (1912) and the Jasper House/Hub Hotel (1882) right next door) the Gem Theatre at 9682 Jasper Avenue opened in 1914. The two men contracted the services of architects Herbert Magoon and George MacDonald who were responsible for many famous structures in Edmonton including the Beuna Vista Building, the H V Shaw Building, and Schwermann Hall at Concordia College. The Gem was designed in a utilitarian style with classical revival flourishes.

Jules and Jay Allan, the ‘Allan Brothers’, who made a name for themselves building theatres across Canada performed the construction work. The Gem opened with 490 seats and an orchestra pit nestled in front of the screen for accompaniment of the silent films of the day.  It featured elaborate plaster relief work in both the lobby and the theatre itself.  Even though the Gem was described as ‘stylish’ and ‘modern’ upon opening it was a relatively modest structure when compared with the Allan’s namesake 900 seat Allan Theatre constructed in Calgary in 1911.

Along with the Dreamland (1912) and Portola (1914) theatres, both just a block down Jasper Avenue, the Gem anchored what was then known as Edmonton’s theatre district. Though the Gem changed hands a few times over the years, both in ownership and operation (and a later renovation which added some moderne touches around the entrance and a new marquee), by all accounts it was a successful business and was in continuous operation from 1914 until the early 1970s when the large, suburban multi-screen cineplexes arrived on the scene.

The Gem Theatre's marquee from street level, added during a moderne renovation

The Gem Theatre’s marquee from street level, added during a later moderne renovation

The Gem was reborn as a live music venue in the late 1970s, though this did not last long. Another incarnation in the early 1980s saw the building re-christened as the Star Theatre, featuring  screenings of Cantonese language films. This venture quickly failed as well. From the time of the Star Theatre’s closing, the structure sat vacant and neglected. As early as 1996 there was a City report published which stated the building ‘was in peril’, though still somewhat structurally sound. The report recommended mothballing the theatre until such time as funds could be found to rehabilitate the aging building. Sadly, even after municipal heritage designation in 2000 this was not to be. The City of Edmonton sold the theatre to Oliver O’Connor for $77,500 contingent on restoration of the building. The work was not completed, and this resulted in Mr O’Connor and the City of Edmonton suing each other, for misrepresenting the scope of work needed, and for not performing the work, respectively. By early 2010 the roof was near a total loss, a victim of its own neglect. The interior was covered in inches of pigeon feces, and was being used as a makeshift shelter by the homeless. After some complaints by nearby residents, City of Edmonton inspectors arrived on the scene and quickly ordered the Gem Theatre razed for health and safety reasons.

The marquee is removed, February 2010

The marquee is removed, February 2010

Demolition reveals the elaborate plaster relief work

Demolition reveals the elaborate plaster relief work

Demolition continues in earnest

Demolition continues in earnest

As seems to be the case much too often, we knew something had to be done quickly to save the Gem, and yet still nothing was done. This building, its history, and its connection to the past now only live on in photographs and memories. A sad ironic note from Kathryn Ivany’s Historic Walks of Edmonton, published in 2004:

It is hoped that the Star will benefit from the Downtown Development program and reemerge in a new incarnation soon.

Unfortunately this was not to be. The theatre only lasted another 6 years until that chilly and foggy day in February 2010.

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— Written by Darren Kirby

Pictures courtesy of Hugh Lee

About HeritageForward!

Heritage Forward! is a new start up group that intends to raise awareness and implement actions to ensure that Edmonton’s heritage buildings are valued in our community. Heritage Forward! strives to broaden conversations about the state of historical resources and urban heritage character in our evolving city by bringing together diverse interests and voices.

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