For a final time, they dressed in black tie, danced to live music, nibbled appetizers, wore their fezes, raised their glasses and bid farewell to their distinguished 38-year-old honoree.
It was a fitting tribute from members of the Shriners to the veritable rock (and stone and concrete and cinder block) of their organization: the Boumi Temple at 4900 N. Charles St.
"It's hard to replace a building like this," said Boumi member John Genoa of Catonsville, one of 1,200 people at last night's gala. "I'm going to miss it. It was beautiful."
The building -- at 78,000 square feet, it's roughly the size of a major department store -- was a victim of its architectural excess. With its huge ballrooms, 40-foot ceilings, 700-space parking lot and whopping $12,000 monthly utility bill, the temple had become a burden for the fraternal organization's 6,000 members.
Sold two years ago to neighboring Loyola College, the 20-acre site in North Baltimore will become home to a $20 million student recreation center with an indoor swimming pool and a gymnasium.
When the Shriners vacate at the end of the month, the temple will be torn down.
"We couldn't afford this building," said John W. Fink Jr. of Carney, a retired Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. supervisor who serves as Boumi's leader, its "Illustrious Potentate."
"It was too much for us," Fink said.
Often recognized for its colorful entries in Baltimore-area parades -- Boumi boasts 19 parade units, including marching bands, floats and those famous miniature cars -- the temple has a shrinking and graying membership.
The temple members' average age is 68.
Membership has fallen a third since its peak two decades ago.
"Young people are less interested in us, and I'm afraid we're losing more members by death as we get older," said Fink.
Mistaken for a fire hall by a visiting City Council president, the temple is a concrete edifice. Its imposing stone-block facade and emblem of scimitar, crescent and five-pointed star is intended to evoke the Shriners' Arabesque tradition.
The building opened in November 1960 and has drawn members from as far as Frederick and Ocean City. Boumi supports 22 Shriner "clubs" or sub-groups of members across Maryland.
In March, the Shriners will move to a smaller temple being built on a 30-acre former farm field along King Avenue in White Marsh, about two miles south of White Marsh Mall.
Boumi officials hope the suburban location will help attract new members.
Shriners don't recruit, but that might have to change as the organization continues to lose members nationwide.
To become a Shriner requires first becoming a Mason. To join that fraternal group, applicants must fill out a questionnaire and be interviewed by a panel before their request is put to a secret vote.
A similar process screens qualified Masons who seek to become Shriners. There are about 575,000 Shriners and 191 Shrine temples across America.
"Our membership list [from years past] could fill up a Who's Who of Maryland," said Clifford A. Stevens, Boumi's recorder, a member and full-time Temple employee.
Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer is a member, as is #F Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, both of whom were scheduled to attend last night's gala.
But Boumi also evokes a bygone era in another way -- as a white men's club. Officials claim African-Americans are not prohibited from joining but prefer to join exclusively black organizations.
Boumi members fear their fraternity is little understood by the general public. Shriners are not, for instance, a religious organization. The group requires only that members believe in a supreme being.
One of the organization's major objectives is charitable: The temple generally donates about $200,000 each year to medical care for crippled and burned children -- part of an annual, multi-million dollar tradition.
"That's something a lot of people don't know about us," said Raoul L. Frevel Sr., a Boumi officer.
With the conclusion of last night's party, the giant building goes silent -- until the bulldozers arrive.
Most of the temple's furnishings have been removed and put in storage, its office files transferred to a Masonic lodge in Hunt Valley, its parade equipment warehoused, and the building's huge kitchen torn out.
"It's kind of sad. I've been able to meet a lot of real nice people there," said Raymond V. Merkle, the owner of a Baltimore monument company and past potentate. "We've had a lot of good times."
Pub Date: 9/20/98