Historic Detroit

Masonic Temple (old)

As the 19th century was winding to a close, the Masonic fraternity in Detroit was starting to build a growing membership. There were many Masonic branches spread out throughout Detroit at the time, and in 1891, they agreed to consolidate their groups into one home, united in solidarity and in base of operations.

On Aug. 11, 1892, Masonic groups bought land on Lafayette Boulevard and First Street, just outside of the heart of downtown, for a little more than $50,000 (about $1.2 million today, when adjusted for inflation). To pay for the $344,198 building (about $8.75 million today), the individual members were asked to chip in about $80 each, the equivalent of $1,800 today. The Ashlar, Oriental and Palestine lodges, the Monroe chapter and the Damascus Commandery gave $1,000 each ($23,500 today); Corinthian gave $1,400 ($33,000 today); the Peninsular Chapter and Detroit and Union responded with $1,500 each ($35,000 today); Zion forked over $3,000 ($70,000 today); and the Monroe Council gave $500 ($11,800 today). The groups then united to form what would become the Masonic Temple Association of Detroit, which still exists today. The association was formally formed March 19, 1894.

To build their new home, the Masons turned to another Mason, George D. Mason and his firm, Mason & Rice. The plans and specifications for the building were formally adopted on Dec. 3, 1892. Excavation began Oct. 1, 1894, and the cornerstone was laid Jan. 23, 1895. The dedication ceremonies were held with much fanfare and celebrated by thousands of Masons and their families on St. John the Baptist Day, June 24, 1895. The Masonic groups moved in over the next several months. Among the city leaders active in getting the temple built were future Mayor William C. Maybury, a past master who served as chairman of the Masonic Relations Committee. Just under two years after the new temple opened, Maybury would be elected mayor of Detroit.

The Masons’ new home would tower seven stories over the street, a 140-foot-tall red brick building. The building quickly became a landmark downtown as one of the city’s tallest buildings, at least for a few years. The Free Press called the temple “one of the showplaces of the era” before the automobile made Detroit king, the paper noted in 1935. Its auditorium had room for 750 people - 400 on the main floor and 350 in the balcony - but that would soon prove to be not nearly enough space. At the time it was built, the temple’s membership numbered only 3,200. By 1908, the building was crowded to capacity as the rise in Detroit’s industrial might flooded the organization with new members. Concessions had to be made, such as putting restrictions on the use of the dining room and assembly halls.

“We thought the old temple would care for our needs for 50 years, but we outgrew it in 12 years,” Frank Fisher, secretary of the Masonic Temple Association, told the Christian Science Monitor in February 1926.

The Masonic Temple Association decided to add onto the building, and bought another 50 feet of land along Lafayette Boulevard from the Newland Estate and 16 more feet from the Benevolent Order of Elks. Architect George D. Mason, who had originally designed the building, was brought back on board to explore enlarging the temple. Postcards were printed up touting the plan to extend the building east, along Lafayette Boulevard. But the temple’s rolls continued to grow, and the plan was abandoned in 1913: The association decided even the addition wouldn’t be enough room. It was time to look for a new home where the still booming membership could continue to grow. The association settled on a parcel of land north of downtown on Second Avenue and Bagg Street (now known as Temple Avenue). The cornerstone of the new temple was laid in 1922, and the building opened four years later.

After the Masons moved to comfier confines in their new temple, the building housed the Cadillac Athletic Club. But when the club went under in the 1930s, the building fell back into the Masonic Temple Association’s hands. The Masons were paying more than $10,000 a year (nearly $160,000 today) in taxes and maintenance on the empty building. In November 1935, it was announced that the landmark would be leveled. Clarence W. Videan, the group’s president, told the Free Press at the time that by leveling the building and turning it into a parking lot, the land could make the group money instead of cost it money. Because the old temple was across from the Fort Shelby Hotel, it’s assumed the Masons did quite well on their parking lot. Demolition began in late December 1935 and was finished in early 1936.

Today, the site is home to the 411 Building, a Comerica Bank office tower built in 1971 for Manufacturers Bank, which merged with Comerica in 1992.