Masons and masonry

A not-so-secret initiation into Lansing’s former Masonic Temple


Lansing has more than its share of abandoned legacy buildings, from empty schools to old factories and cavernous K-Marts, but the 1924 Masonic Temple building at 217 S. Capitol Ave. downtown is in a class by itself.

Built in a gilded age when Masonic lodges were exploding in membership and rolling in dues, the 7-story proposed site for a relocated Lansing City Hall is no decaying ghost hulk. It’s more like a stocky pit bull, pulling on its chain, waiting for the next bone.

The building’s most recent occupant, Cooley Law School, kept it maintained and upgraded to the point where you could almost eat off of the floors. Cooley Law School used the Temple building for more than 30 years, beginning in 1974.

The Masonic Temple today. Early renderings of plans to turn it into City Hall did not include the columns, but Boji Group President John Hindo said the columns will stay.
The Masonic Temple today. Early renderings of plans to turn it into City Hall did not include the columns, but Boji Group President John Hindo said …

In 2021, the Lansing-based Boji Broup bought the temple and has maintained it with the same level of care. Last week, John Hindo, CEO of the Boji Group, took me on a tour of the building and pointed out its many amenities, from its fancy lobby to its terrazzo floors and heavy wood trim to oversized former classrooms that may someday house City Council chambers.

Whatever the outcome of the current negotiations over moving City Hall here, the Temple is a tough old dog that will wait quietly for its new master. This big boy is not going anywhere.



Ballroom dancing

Masonic temples around the world reached Xanadu-like proportions in the order’s heyday, at the turn of the 20th century. The House of the Temple in Washington, D.C., with its 17-ton sphinxes and fabulous ring of 33 Ionic columns, is modeled after the legendary Mausoleum in Helicarnassus, in Turkey, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Closer to home, Detroit’s Temple is the largest Masonic structure in the world, a 16-story colossus with 1,037 rooms.

A 9-story, former Masonic Temple in Glendale, California, built in 1929 (above) closed in 1957, was renovated (right)into office space, an assembly hall and dining areas in 2015.
A 9-story, former Masonic Temple in Glendale, California, built in 1929 (above) closed in 1957, was renovated (right)into office space, an assembly …

By contrast, Lansing’s temple sticks to basics. Its creamy limestone facade sweeps upward in crisp, clean lines, as if it’s posing for a $5 bill. The style is “Greek revival,” “classical revival” or “Roman classical,” depending on which source you consult — ideal for banks, municipal buildings and the like.

“Even from the exterior, it just looks like a beautiful municipal office building that just stands the test of time,” Hindo said.

But this is a sober grandeur, scaled to Lansing’s modestly sized downtown. Here is a surprise quiz: Without looking at a photograph, specify how many columns the temple has in front. Most people say “six,” “10” or even more, but there are only two — enough to make you feel secure, but not enough to intimidate you. Architect Edwyn Bowd, designer of many Lansing-area landmarks, from Spartan Stadium to the Knapp’s Office Center and Ottawa Street Power Station, was a master at suiting a building’s scale and style to its purpose and surroundings.

Between the columns, it’s a quick hop of only five steps from street level to front door. This is a public building, just slightly elevated, designed for people to enter, gather and feel at home.

The columns weren’t even included in early renderings of the Boji Group’s proposal for a relocated City Hall.

Hindo was quick to correct that omission.

“Those were old preliminary drawings,” he said. “The historic columns will not be removed.”

According to the Temple’s 1980 entry in the National Register of Historic Places, the façade is topped by a triangular flourish (the entablature) with three decorative scallops at each corner. (They’re called acroteria, if you want to get nerdy.) These, along with four discreetly etched Masonic emblems over the front entrance, are the only noticeable exterior frills.

Despite the temple’s excellent overall condition, there are two holes in it, but they were cut on purpose.

Inside, on the sixth floor, workers made the holes to check out the condition of the drywall, the inside of the exterior masonry and the air ducts in between.

“We’re trying to peel the onion back and see what’s back there,” Boji project manager Keith Kelly said. “It was structurally very, very overbuilt. That’s why it looks so good today. It has been taken care of, but the way it was originally designed and built — they just don’t do them like this anymore. No one does.”

The temple’s frame is made of steel, reinforced with concrete. Look through the holes the workers cut and you can see buff bricks the size of cinderblocks — the exterior north wall, as solid as they come. They weren’t called Masons for nothing.

Kelly is familiar with sturdy Masonic buildings, having worked on Flint’s 1911 Masonic Temple, a close cousin to Lansing’s but only three stories tall. Flint’s is being upgraded into an event and entertainment venue with the help of a $250,000 Prosperity Award from the Consumers Energy Foundation.

“They had a fire some years ago, and I was involved in redoing that after the fire,” Kelly said. “It’s built almost like this one — very, very, similar.”

The interior steps leading upward to the lobby of Lansing’s temple are lined with Tennessee pink granite.

“They used it in the Capitol,” Kelly said. “When they renovated the Capitol, they used the last of what is available, so this stone is no longer available.”

If the City Hall relocation plan comes to fruition, the first floor will be home to Mayor Andy Schor’s “one-stop shop” for residents and visitors to get information and transact city business.

The temple’s second floor is home to two ceremonial chambers, reconfigured for large Cooley Law School classes, that planners believe would be well suited to City Council meetings. The idea, Hindo said, is to put Council chambers where they would be accessible to the public, a floor up from ground level.

The third and fourth floors would house offices for the mayor, city attorney and other officials, along with departmental units such as human resources, planning and so on.

Throughout the building, residents, visitors and staffers would enjoy heavy wooden doors and wood trim, elegant fixtures and terrazzo floors that would be prohibitively expensive today.

Floors five, six and seven are “not spoken for,” Hindo said, but there is room for more city departments or space for other tenants. Hindo said the Lansing School District has expressed interest in using some of the space.

One of the building’s most interesting features is the ballroom on the sixth floor, used most recently for Cooley Law School graduation ceremonies.

The fancy fixtures in the ballroom throw off a spiky Art Deco light. The doors, trim and other fixtures are made of heavy, deeply grained hardwoods. Cornices and other fixtures are further adorned with gold leaf. Near the ballroom stage, workers have peeled back the carpet to reveal the original maple flooring.

“These are features we are hoping the city preserves,” Boji said.

In this cavernous ballroom, under the same octagonal gold light fixtures, Lansing Masons danced to the music of two orchestras to celebrate the building’s grand opening a century ago.

Whether the ballroom stays a ballroom or is modified to fit some other use depends on who occupies it.

The stairs offer original woodwork and terrazzo floors.
The stairs offer original woodwork and terrazzo floors.

While preparing preliminary plans for the City Hall relocation, the Boji Group examined four case studies of repurposed Masonic temples around the country.

One of these, a 9-story former Masonic Temple in Glendale, California, similar in scale to Lansing’s, had a ballroom that was converted to an “open workspace atrium,” with large workstations and open conference rooms.

Current plans for the Lansing temple are preliminary and flexible. “The two main focuses, if they can make it work right now, are either a consolidation of city departments in this building or a potential opportunity with the school district,” Hindo said.

In the basement, Kelly pointed out numerous upgrades made in the Cooley years to the electrical systems, hot water pumps, air handlers and generators.

“Cooley invested millions of dollars in the place,” Kelly said.

The rust, decay and obsolescence in evidence in the bowels of the present City Hall are nowhere to be found.

But that doesn’t mean upgrades aren’t in order.

At the city’s request, the Boji Group has hired Synergy Engineers to evaluate the plumbing, mechanical and HVAC systems from top to bottom, according to Hindo.

“The goal is not just to make repairs today, but to make sure all the systems are upgraded as if they were new systems, to make them last long-term,” Hindo said.



Boom and bust

In addition to its structural solidity and noble classicism, Lansing’s Masonic Temple embodies multiple layers of local, U.S. and world history.

Inscribed above the columns on the Lansing temple is a letter “G,” inside a square and compass, along with other Masonic devices. The square and compass symbolize not only brick-and-mortar masonry, but also the moral obligation to keep one’s behavior on the square.

Depending on the source you consult, the letter “G” can mean “God” or “Geometry” (or even “Great Architect of the Universe,” which neatly combines both concepts).

According to information from Michigan Masons, freemasonry dates back to the Middle Ages, when skilled masons had travel privileges to move from one country to another in Europe’s great age of cathedral building.

By 1717, when the first Grand Lodge was formed in England, the Masons morphed beyond a craftsman’s guild into a broader-based, often secret society devoted to fellowship, mutual aid and community service, with its own moral teachings, rituals and customs.

The earliest documented Masonic lodge in Michigan formed in 1764, in Detroit. Early Michigan lodges formed along trading routes such as the St. Joseph River in southwestern Michigan.

By the mid-1850s, Lansing, tucked into the interior of the state, had its own Masonic lodge, No. 33 “Free and Accepted Masons,” near Washington Avenue in midtown.

One of the many spaces that Cooley Law School had converted to classrooms, which in turn would offer amply space for City Council chambers.
One of the many spaces that Cooley Law School had converted to classrooms, which in turn would offer amply space for City Council chambers.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a menagerie of fraternal orders, with names like Elks, Moose and Eagles, comprised the social networks of the day, with the Odd Fellows and Freemasons among the most popular. By 1930, over 12 percent of adult men in the United States were Masons. The dues rolled in, and bigger and bigger halls — now dubbed “temples” — rose across the nation.

But the Masons’ heyday didn’t last. Beginning with the Great Depression and Second World War, an onslaught of 20th century setbacks contributed to a decline in membership. By the 1970s, many temples were consolidated, sold or converted to other uses.

Lansing’s temple, with its Roman-style design and many large interior spaces, made an ideal home for the growing Cooley Law School, beginning in 1974. The large ceremonial Temple rooms were converted into classrooms. Their gold nameplates, with names modeled after the Inns of the Court in London, still glimmer in the hallways. At its peak in 2010, the school had over 3,900 students, making it the largest law school in the United States by enrollment, but that number dwindled to about 500 by 2022. By 2000, the college had moved most of its operations to the 10-story Cooley Center at 300 S. Capitol Ave.

Bust followed boom, and the Temple was abandoned a second time.

In recent years, there has been speculation that local investors wanted to buy the former Temple and convert it to a boutique hotel. Dominic Cochran, the director of the Lansing Public Media Center, told City Pulse in 2021 that he and city officials also briefly pursued a partnership that could have brought a performing arts center to the building.

“We were super intrigued. It already had an auditorium space on the top floor. It had a lot of potential,” Cochran told City Pulse. “We had this old-school European opera house concept. It was a great idea, and it would’ve involved a massive feat of engineering to pull it all off.”

The idea was scrapped in 2019 when officials were informed that a costly freight elevator would be needed to haul equipment and scenery to the sixth-floor auditorium space.

But there are many ways to teach an old dog new tricks.

A 9-story former Masonic Temple in Glendale, California, built in 1929 and closed in 1957, similar in scale and size to Lansing’s, was renovated into office space, an assembly hall and dining areas in 2015.

The Glendale temple was one of four case studies the Boji group looked at as it developed its Lansing City Hall proposal. A former Masonic Temple in Danville, Pennsylvania, built in 1926, is now the city’s municipal building. A former temple in Rushville, Indiana, built in 1914 and used as a theater for 85 years, was renovated in 2017 and now houses City Hall and other tenants.

Across the country, dozens of temples large and small have been repurposed for the 21st century. Closer to home, the 120-year-old, 3-story Masonic Temple at the corner of South Cochran Avenue and Seminary Street in Charlotte, Michigan, was renovated into apartments in 2016. East Lansing’s foursquare Masonic Temple building at 314 M.A.C. Ave., completed in 1916, was sold by the lodge in 1985 and converted to residential and office use.

The outcome of negotiations in Lansing is yet unknown, and some unexpected fate may await the former Lansing Temple, but Hindo is optimistic about the City Hall project.

“It makes a lot of sense to take a phenomenal historical building and make it a municipal office,” he said. “A lot of these Masonic Temples — it’s all about historic preservation. These buildings have a lot of history, and you see that in the façade, in the lobby, the stairwells. You want to preserve all that.”

Boji Group President John Hindo in the lobby of the Masonic Temple building.
Boji Group President John Hindo in the lobby of the Masonic Temple building.


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