The Detroit Masonic Temple is where worlds meet. It’s a place where Jack White can get married in front of a crowd of nearly 5,000 people in an impromptu wedding concert; where Halloween revelers gather for Theater Bizarre, “The World’s Greatest Masquerade”; where the Detroit Roller Derby matches take place – and a whole host of other esoteric things that go on in the name of the Freemasons, a mysterious fraternal order that we admit we don’t quite understand yet.
With its painted ceilings, crystal chandeliers and stained-glass chapels, the 210-foot-tall, 14-story building is the largest Masonic temple in the world, with 16 stories and 1,037 rooms, some of which have never been completed. In recent years, weddings, film productions and wrestling matches have been held within its limestone walls. And in 2019, live music company AEG Presents struck an exclusive deal to operate and book the building’s two concert venues, the 4,400-seat Masonic Temple Theater and the 1,586-seat Cathedral Theatre.
But how did this mystifying building end up at the corner of Temple Street and Second Avenue in Detroit’s Cass Corridor? If anyone is equipped to answer that question, it’s Masonic Temple’s general manager, Steve Genther, who has worked there for 40 years.
Genther, a Freemason himself, takes us on a tour of Masonic ritual initiation chambers, theaters and a bizarre unfinished swimming pool. Opened in 1926, the Masonic Temple was designed by architect George Mason. It took six years and $6.5 million (about $87.9 million today) to build and furnish it, Genther tells us. Mason dedicated the building in 1920, but the first cornerstone was laid in 1922 using George Washington’s trowel, which was also used to lay the first bricks of the US Capitol.
On Saturday, September 24, the Masonic Temple will host a cornerstone centenary celebration with a rededication ceremony and a red carpet gala in its newly restored Fountain Ballroom. The Washington trowel will also be on display during the 100th anniversary celebration.
The Masons are a spiritual brotherhood with lodges around the world dating back to the 13th century. But even after hours of exploring the Masonic Temple, with Genther as our encyclopedic tour guide, we still don’t know exactly what the Masons do, aside from donating to charity and holding elaborate, secret meetings.
While Freemasons were once skilled stone builders, Genther says that nowadays anyone without a criminal record who “believes in a supreme being” can join – as long as they are male. Yes, women are still prohibited from being Freemasons (if only you could see our eyes rolling), but can join other adjacent groups like the Order of the Eastern Star or the Daughters of the Nile, which are reserved for women.
“A Freemason is someone who takes the tools of the trade that a stonemason would use to build an actual temple and symbolically takes those tools of the trade to build a temple within himself,” says Genther. “So the principle is to take good men and make them better.”
In its heyday, around 50,000 Masons gathered at the Masonic Temple, but nowadays it’s more likely to be used as a concert hall or movie set. Ryan Gosling filmed his 2014 film lost river here, and the 2016 asylum thriller Eloise was filmed in the unfinished (and spooky) Temple Theater. Musicians like Eminem, Nicki Minaj and Big Sean have used Masonic as a backdrop for their music videos. Aretha Franklin even shot an American Express commercial there.
“Once we had three different movies shooting in our building, and I learned we never did that,” Genther recalled. “If you have three movies that want to shoot in your building at the same time, don’t. One at a time.”
Masonic symbolism is all around the building, including the numbers three, five, and seven. For example, all rooms in the lodge include stairs with three, five, and then seven steps between landings.
“It has to do with, you know, the universe and things like that. I don’t know for sure,” Genther says when we ask why these numbers are favored by Masons. like the three degrees for the first steps, the five senses, then seven liberal arts and sciences.”
Beyond the mystery of the masons, the buildings also have the reputation of being haunted. When we arrive at the Masonic, a security guard brags about the paranormal investigators who are flocking the building looking for ghostly activity. Some visitors reportedly reported experiencing cold spots, doors closing suddenly, feeling watched, and other unexplained phenomena.
Genther says the haunted claims stem from stories that architect George Mason jumped off the Masonic’s roof because he was upset he couldn’t complete the building. But as Genther notes, Mason actually died peacefully at home.
“It’s kind of an urban legend,” he says. “We have always had these groups who want to pass. I get calls all the time saying, “Oh, we heard you’re haunted.” We want to do something. Obviously we are a for-profit company, so if you want to rent a space to do that, of course you can. Some people told me they felt a presence or a ghost or whatever. But personally, I’ve never seen it myself.
We didn’t experience anything ghostly during our time riding the 1920s building’s crank elevator and traversing its mezzanines and grand ballrooms, either.
Erin Miracle, Masonic’s social media manager, has her own theory about why people can “feel a presence” in the temple.
“I’ve only been part of the Masonic Temple since February, but every time I come here every day, it’s magical,” she says. “Everything that building was made of has energy in it. And there was so much energy in that building. Music carries energy, people carry energy. I feel like ‘with what the building is made of and the energy that’s been inside those walls, it’s impossible not to feel something.
That energy was nearly lost when the Masonic Temple was nearly seized in 2013, until Jack White paid $142,000 in back taxes owed by the building. White’s mother worked as an usher in the building and is said to have had a love for its neo-Gothic architecture. The Masonic Temple houses a signed poster by White from his 2014 concert, which shows a woman standing in front of the building, shielding it from an impending storm.
Miracle is right: it is impossible not to feel something in the stepped walls of the building. Whether it’s admiration for its intricate architecture or curiosity (or confusion) about Freemasons, there’s no denying that the Masonic Temple in Detroit is a strange and magical place.
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