The history and mystery of Marshall’s Old Masonic Temple
The other day while lunching in Marshall I noticed an unusual insignia on an old building in the middle of downtown. I recognized the emblem as the square and compasses, a symbol often used by the Freemasons, surrounded by snakes and wings.
With its unusual tapered windows and masterful brickwork, I surmised that the structure may have been constructed by Freemasons or used by them as a temple. I know that several of the nation’s founding fathers were Freemasons, including George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Paul Revere, but I never heard of any Freemasons in Marshall.
It turns out that my hunch was correct and that Marshall has a former Masonic temple in its midst. The “Old Masonic Temple” is located at Third Street and West Main Street. It today houses HealthSource Chiropractic and the Marshall Chamber of Commerce, but in its past was the site of multiple businesses, including a barbershop, offices, and several women’s clothing stores.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is almost as old as the town itself. Masonic Delta Lodge no. 119 was established in 1874, two years after the platting of Marshall. Members contracted the building design from Minneapolis architect F.H Ellerbe after two former meeting places on 3rd St. were damaged by fire.
Construction began in March 1917 and was completed in January of 1918. Ellerbe designed several other buildings in Minnesota, including some for the Mayo clinic, and members choose his design when Egyptian revival was enjoying a resurgence. Newspapers from the time report that they wanted to construct “something that will be an ornament for years to come”.
They succeeded. In 1980, the structure was nominated as one of Minnesota’s most comprehensive examples of exotic Egyptian Revival architecture. Art Professor Pat Brace uses it as an example of Egyptian revival in her American Art History courses at Southwest Minnesota State University. She explains this design “became popular for Masonic structures in the 1830s through the turn of the century because of how the Masons trace themselves back to the stone masons who helped build the Egyptian temples and tombs”.
She further notes that “after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter, Egyptian motifs became popular in structural design, as well as decorative arts, clothing, jewelry, and furniture.”
This helps to explain the choice of architecture, but what about the unusual Egyptian insignia on the Old Masonic Temple?
To answer this question I set out to see if I could find any active Masons nearby.
After reaching out to the state Grand Lodge I was contacted by Dennis Rafson, secretary of the current Marshall Lodge No. 119 of Freemasons. Rafson recounts the Old Masonic Temple was sold in March, 2006, when the sewer lines and sidewalks were replaced under Main Street, but says that there are still Masons in town who meet at the Marshall senior center.
He also notes some unique details in the interior of the building, such as the shape of the tapered windows being duplicated in the shape of the doors on the upper floor, and flooring laid with small black and white decorative tiles. Rafson isn’t sure why the original Marshall Masons chose the particular Egyptian symbol visible on the facade, but agrees that it is a common symbol signifying the organization’s lineage.
Masons trace themselves back to the builders of King Solomon’s temple. The cobra and wings emblem is known as the Farvahar, or the Egyptian vulture and sun disk symbol. It was customarily carved on Egyptian tombs and doorways as a symbol of protection and power. This use of cryptic images is just one example of why the Freemasons are an intriguing and sometimes misunderstood bunch.
Traditionally, the guild of Freemasons were protective of trade secrets and open by invitation only. They now admit men of all professions, but the organization still has a reputation for being secretive. I once asked a friend initiated as a Mason to tell me about his ceremony, but he was sworn to silence. The use of private ceremonies and symbols lead some people to confuse Masons with secret societies such as the Illuminati. One of the most enigmatic of Masonic symbols is the Eye of Providence seen on the U.S. dollar, the focus of many modern conspiracy theories. These associations and theories lack solid evidence, but illustrate how the Masons have been the target of outlandish allegations down the years.
In the 1880s, Pope Leo XII alleged that the Freemasons were leaders of the kingdom of Satan. This encouraged hoaxers like Léo Taxil, a French writer and journalist, to publish fraudulent accounts about a supposed secret satanic cult within Freemasonry. Taxil accused Masons of summoning demons, some in the shape of piano playing crocodiles. Taxil later confessed to being “the arch-liar of the period”, aiming to defame not only Freemasons but also Catholics who opposed them. Taxil himself had been censured by Pope Leo XII and hoped to revenge himself by making the Pope’s accusations seem ridiculous. But his preposterous stories were widely believed, showing that disinformation campaigns capable of duping the gullible are nothing new. Taxil’s hoax succeeded in part because false insinuations of being a secret occult group perpetually swirl around the Freemasons.
In reality, as the websites for active lodges in Mankato and Tracy explain, the Freemasons “are not a secret organization, but an organization with a few secrets”. They “welcome all men, but solicit none”, aiming to “make good men better”. Freemasons pursue moral commitments through their use of rituals and symbols. The square set and compasses associated with brick laying remind them to be honorable, true, self-controlled, and of service to the community. These symbols are typically depicted surrounding the letter “G”, meaning “Geometry”, “God”, or in Freemason parlance, the “Great Architect of the Universe”. Rafson explains that Freemasons ask members to affirm belief in a higher power, but espouse no particular religious affiliation. Discussions of politics and religion are infrequent at gatherings, not because they are forbidden, but as he clarifies, “because they are not the point”.
Being a fraternal organization, the Masons are unlikely to be viewed as a modern paragon of sexual equality. Back in the day “gentleman’s clubs” from which women were excluded were common, and over time, offshoot organizations for the wives and children of Freemasons developed. These include the Order of the Eastern Star, in which women are the senior officers, Daughters of Job, open to young women, and DeMolay, open to young men and named for the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Today a few Masonic chapters in England allow women to be initiated as Masons. But for the most part, the ceremonial secrets of the Masons continue to be fraternal secrets. For all of this, there is something to be said for an organization that aims to cultivate male character for the better, alongside other groups such as the Boy Scouts, military, and priesthood.
For many reasons, Marshall’s Old Masonic Temple is intriguing, not only because it once housed Delta Lodge no. 119, nor because it represents a fine example of exotic Egyptian revival architecture. What really fascinates is that that following eras of slander and approaching the age of women’s rights, the construction of the Old Masonic Temple in Marshall was a remarkable endeavor belonging to a bygone era. Like its enigmatic insignia, it probably held profound meaning for its members that has been lost in fullness to the haze of history, outlived by its skillfully laid bricks, mortar, and columns.