Masonic building's 'lodge hall' a hidden gem, challenge for new owner

A look inside a rarely seen space and relic of 19th century Belfast
By Ethan Andrews | Feb 10, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews A knocker cast in the shape of the traditional Masonic square and compasses marks the entrance to the lodge hall of the organization's longtime headquarters in Belfast, a grand space that has remained mostly hidden from public view.

Belfast — One of the grandest interior spaces in Belfast lies less than a block from the central traffic light downtown, on the upper floors of the old Masonic Temple. And for most, if not all, of its 140-year existence, it's been hidden from public view.

That's not likely to change soon. But after the building changed hands in January, the new owner allowed us to take a look at this unexpected gem.

Beyond a pair of thick wooden doors on the third floor that bear brass knockers cast in the form of the traditional Masonic "square and compasses," lies a single room, 40 feet by 46 feet, with a 21-foot ceiling. The walls and ceiling are sparingly painted with biblical scenes and Masonic imagery. A large chandelier hangs from the center of the room above an expanse of carpet.

Short risers trace a line around the edge of the room, bumping out in semicircular daises on the east, south and west walls where officers once sat.

The "lodge hall," as the ceremonial room is known, fills the third and fourth floors on the south side of the building at Main and High streets.

Herman Littlefield, historian for Lodge 24 in Belfast and a member of the order since 1972, said the hall was mostly off-limits to women — wives and relatives could attend promotions of loved ones, and there was a ladies auxiliary called Order of the Eastern Star — as well as non-Masons.

Despite having the look of a grand dining room or wedding venue, the lodge hall was reserved for Masonic business. With the exception of the occasional cup of water for a speaker, Littlefield said, food and drink were not permitted in the space.

The building was home to two lodges that operated in Belfast since the 1800s: Timothy Chase Lodge 126 and Phoenix Lodge 24. Like other fraternal organizations of the time — the former Odd Fellows building, home to a similarly grand space on the top floor, sits around the corner from the Masonic building on Main Street — the Freemasons struggled to bring in new members and eventually consolidated into a single lodge.

In 1995, the Masonic Temple Association sold the building and the lodge moved to a new building on Wight Street, across from City Park.

"It got to be they couldn't afford it anymore," Littlefield said. "And it was hard for some of the older gentlemen to get up those three flights of stairs."

The Masonic quarters on the top two floors were converted to a single apartment after the Masons left. Today, those floors are home to the architecture firm GO Logic. On a recent visit, the only signs of activity in the great hall were a folded pingpong table and several rolled up yoga mats.

In December, the building was sold to John Warren, an investor from Florida with an interest in historic downtowns. Warren said recently that he doesn't have major changes planned for the structure beyond filling a prime street-level space vacated at the end of the year by the law firm of Blake and Hazard. One tenant of the building described a feeding frenzy among downtown merchants hoping to relocate to the high-visibility storefront.

As for the lodge hall, Warren said he's looking for ideas. The space is too big to keep in mothballs, he said, but it also has too much local history to simply tear back to the brick and start over, despite suggestions from several contractors to do just that.

"Well that's not what you do when you find something that's partially damaged in some mausoleum or 3,000-year old cave, say, I can do it better today," he said. "You find a way to halt the destruction and try to incorporate what you have left into some other form that still plays its part."

What that part will be remains to be seen. Modern building codes and accessibility laws have kept the upper floors of the Masonic building — along with the better-known Opera House and several other upper-level spaces that once were centers of the city's social and moral life — in limbo.

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