Masonic Temple close to getting a reprieve

The Baltimore Sun

One year after local preservationists and community leaders voiced concerns that Baltimore's Scottish Rite Temple of Freemasonry might be demolished to make way for new development, the building no longer appears threatened by the wrecker's ball.

It's not completely off the endangered list, either.

Leaders of the Masonic order that owns the neoClassical building at 3800 N. Charles St. have decided for now to stay at their current location rather than pursue a plan to sell the property and use the money to move to Baltimore County, according to representative Ray Leppo.

"It won't be torn down," Leppo said last week. "We have no plans to move. ... It looks like we're here for the moment, unless something really drops out of the sky."

That's a change from last spring, when the group was talking about moving to a smaller facility that would be built on a two-acre parcel in Hunt Valley.

Leppo, who serves as personal representative to the Sovereign Grand Inspector General of the Scottish Rite Order in Maryland, said the difference is that the city is in the process of designating the temple a local landmark, and that would make it difficult to the Masons or any subsequent owner to obtain a demolition permit.

The 1933 building evokes a Greek temple, with its large front portico and thick stone walls. Designed by Clyde N. Friz and Charles Friz, with John Russell Pope as consulting architect, it has ceremonial spaces, a fully equipped kitchen, dining hall and auditorium. The Masons use it for their meetings and rent it out for weddings, concerts and other events.

Leppo said the Masons never wanted to leave the building but were driven by concerns that they couldn't continue to afford maintenance costs. He noted that statewide membership has dropped to around 5,000 today, from a high of more than 12,000.

Leppo said outside groups hold about two dozen events in the building each year, in addition to the Masons' activities. He said those events generate about $80,000 a year, but that's not enough to cover operating costs.

"We like it here," he said. "We love the building. We love the location. The thing is to make it work out economically for tomorrow, not just today."

The Masons had a potential buyer at one point who would have torn down the building to make way for new construction. But when the city started the landmark designation process, Leppo said, that buyer couldn't proceed with his plans. At present, he said, "we don't have any takers" for the property.

Baltimore's Planning Commission voted last week to approve a City Council ordinance that would add the temple to Baltimore's landmark list. That action came six months after the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation voted to designate the property a city landmark, despite the Masons' objections at that time.

The bill now goes to the City Council for consideration. If the council approves the bill, it would go to Mayor Sheila Dixon to be signed into law, and the property would be added to the landmark list.

The Masons did not oppose the landmark designation ordinance at last week's planning commission hearing. Leppo said the group is working with City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and other community representatives to explore ways to use parts of the building that they don't need to generate revenue that could help pay for upkeep.

Clarke, whose district includes the temple, said adding it to the landmark list may make it eligible for grants and other programs that could help the owners upgrade it so it could generate more rental income.

For example, she said, the building's auditorium needs to be air-conditioned. In addition, she said, its top level was never finished and could be a "perfect archive space," without interfering with the Masons' activities on the floors below.

"I'm very optimistic," Clarke said. "I know they love the building. This landmark issue has brought it home to them. They didn't want to move, and we didn't want them to. So we're going to try to find a way to keep it running. It's a partnership now."

Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a local advocacy group, said the Masons have been "incredible stewards" of the building. He agreed with Clarke that the challenge now is to come up with a long-term strategy for helping them stay in the building.

"We're not ready to claim victory yet," Hopkins said. "It's not enough just to have a building on the landmark list. Victory for us would be to get the building on the landmark list and have a viable use for it. "

Another location

Another city building that needs a strategy for continued operation, the vacant President Street Station at 601 President St., has new temporary stewards.

Last year, the mayor's office asked the Baltimore Development Corp. to seek proposals from groups interested in buying or renting the former train station, which housed the Baltimore Civil War Museum from 1997 until last fall. Since then, two other groups have been named to take the lead in finding a new use for the city-owned building: the Baltimore City Heritage Area, a division of the mayor's office that promotes Baltimore's cultural heritage; and the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, part of the planning department.

Built in the early 1850s, President Street Station is the oldest surviving big city railroad terminal in the United States. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad used by slaves fleeing from the South and played a key role in the first fatalities of the Civil War. CHAP has scheduled a public hearing for 3:30 p.m. tomorrow to consider adding the train station to the city's landmark list.

According to Jeffrey Buchheit, director of the Heritage Area program, he and CHAP executive director Kathleen G. Kotarba are now working out the final details of seeking a new use for the building, and a formal request for proposals is likely to be issued this spring.

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