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