When it opened in 1933, the Scottish Rite Temple of Freemasonry featured a banquet hall that could accommodate 665 people for dinner and dancing. Its bronze front doors were 28 feet high and weighed 3 tons each. Later came a 1,065-seat auditorium with one of the largest stages between New York and Washington.
But after nearly 75 years, the charitable foundation that owns the building at Charles and 39th streets wants to sell it and move to smaller quarters in Baltimore County.
A representative of the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation, the owner, recently confirmed at a Tuscany-Canterbury Neighborhood Association meeting that his group is starting to look for a buyer for the property -- 2 1/2 acres in all.
"I won't deny ... that we are considering selling it," said Marlin Mills, assistant personal representative to the Masonic order's sovereign grand inspector general. But "we don't have any contracts on it. We are going to be very particular about who we sell it to."
The group decided to sell the building largely because membership has dropped as upkeep costs have risen, Mills said.
"Our membership has declined from ... 10,000 in the 1930s to 4,000 today. It costs $17,000 a month to maintain the building. So you can see, with declining membership, its hard to maintain."
Mills said at the community meeting that he couldn't state an asking price. "We've only had a few people look at it, so we don't really know. We've been told that the land is worth more than the building."
He said after the meeting that the group has identified property in Hunt Valley where it wants to move and that the replacement building is expected to cost $3 million to $5 million. The group expects construction to be funded largely by the sale of the Charles Street property, he added.
The decision makes the Scottish Rite Temple the last of three large Masonic temples in Baltimore to be sold or put up for sale in the past 12 years. In 1996, Loyola College purchased the Boumi Temple at Charles Street and Wyndhurst Avenue for $7.5 million and replaced it with a recreational facility. In 1998, the William C. Smith Co. bought the Maryland Masonic Temple at 221-227 N. Charles St. for $500,000 and preserved it as a conference and banquet facility linked to its Tremont Plaza hotel.
The possible sale of the Scottish Rite Temple has alarmed some local preservationists and Tuscany-Canterbury residents, who worry that the building could be torn down for a condo tower because it's not protected by local landmark designation. It is part of a federal historic district, but that in itself does not protect a building from demolition.
"We live in the St. James [tower], and we look at that building every day," said Renee Parker, who attended the meeting with her husband, Arnold. "We would be desolate without it. It's just such a balm for the eye."
It's "one of the icons of Baltimore ... a silent sentinel on Charles Street," said architect Walter Schamu, who addressed the neighborhood group about the building. "It would be a great loss for Baltimore and a great loss for the United States to lose that building."
Distinguished by a large front portico and stone walls that evoke a Greek temple, the building was designed by Clyde N. Friz and Charles Friz, with John Russell Pope as a "consulting architect." Pope also designed the Baltimore Museum of Art and University Baptist Church in Baltimore.
The building also has a fully equipped kitchen, a large lounge that doubles as a library and conference room, staff offices and ceremonial spaces. Materials include travertine walls and terrazzo floors. Much of the top floor is unfinished.
The Freemasons use the temple for their own meetings and rent it out for weddings, concerts and other events. Part of the space is occupied by the Scottish Rite Speech and Language Center, a treatment facility for children that is the group's principal charity; it will move with them to Baltimore County.
One difficulty in identifying a buyer is that there aren't many groups seeking properties like it. The building has thick walls and relatively few windows, and only part of it is air conditioned. With some modification, it could be an archives, theater, church, catering facility or museum, among other uses.
The nearby Johns Hopkins University has been contacted about the building but has no interest, said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea. "We would certainly meet with them as a courtesy and listen to what they have to say. But it's not part of our strategic corridors of interest around the campus."
The Freemasons aren't in a rush to sell, Mills said. "We aren't broke. We aren't having a fire sale. We're just exploring our options right now."
Talking to the Tuscany-Canterbury residents, Schamu said, "You have a gem in your neighborhood. The question is: How do you reuse it?"