Historic Raleigh Masonic Temple faces a tough sell

rstradling@newsobserver.comMay 27, 2013 

  • Prince Hall temple to be renovated

    While the Masonic Temple of Raleigh seeks a new owner, another historic Masonic building in Raleigh is about to undergo a complete renovation.

    The Prince Hall Masonic Temple, a three-story brick building at Blount and Cabarrus streets downtown, was built in 1907 for the Widow’s Son and the Excelsior lodges of the Prince Hall Masons, the historically black Masonic organization. The building is both a local and a national historic landmark and the namesake of the Prince Hall Historic District.

    Three Prince Hall lodges use the building’s third floor, which includes a meeting room that’s 40 feet wide and 80 feet long. As with other Masonic groups, these have lost members and no longer need that kind of space. The renovation will include movable partitions so the room can be divided for smaller gatherings.

    Barber shops and beauty salons occupy the ground floor, while the main staircase leads up to a ballroom on the second floor with a stage, hardwood floor and 14-foot ceilings. During segregation, this was a popular stop for black entertainers who couldn’t get into the city’s larger theaters and dance halls, said Ron Dickerson, a member of Widow’s Lodge.

    “Lot of big bands used to come through here,” Dickerson said.

    The Masons plan to renovate the ground-floor retail space and turn the second floor into offices and lease them out. An elevator will be installed, along with new stairs, so the steel fire escape on the building’s facade can come down.

    The upper floors will also get some natural light for the first time in decades, as the building’s tall windows, long boarded up, are restored, Dickerson said.

    “There was a lot of vandalism at one time,” he said. “The neighborhood has changed since then.”

    The Masons have budgeted about $2.5 million for the project and hope to begin construction before the summer is out.

    Staff Writer Richard Stradling

— At first, it might seem puzzling that after 15 years of trying, the Masonic Temple of Raleigh hasn’t been able to sell its building in one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods.

The property covers nearly 4 acres just off Glenwood and Wade avenues in Hayes Barton, home to some of the city’s grandest houses. At the heart of the grassy, hillside lot is Wakestone, the 1920 Georgian-revival home of former U.S. Navy Secretary and News & Observer publisher Josephus Daniels, making the site a local, state and national historic landmark.

But those same qualities have helped make the property difficult to sell.

Though the Masons have used it as a meeting place for 63 years, the property is zoned residential, and neighbors want it to remain that way. And its status as a local historic landmark means that no changes can be made to the exterior of the lodge or its property without a special permit from the Raleigh Historic Development Commission.

And then there’s the fact that the Masonic Temple of Raleigh is two buildings fused together. In the late 1950s, the Masons built a 22,000-square-foot addition on to the Daniels home, with a commercial kitchen, a large dining room and an auditorium that seats more than 200.

“It’s a very challenging property,” said J. Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, which has met with the Masons over the years hoping to find a way to preserve the property. “It’s really complex.”

The Masons have mixed feelings about selling, said Andy Adams, a member of the board that controls the property. But the building is too old and too big for the five organizations that share it: three local lodges – Hiram 40, William G. Hill and Raleigh 500 – and two appending bodies, the Scottish Rite and the York Rite.

The Masons bought the house and built the addition when their ranks swelled with World War II veterans. Altogether, the five organizations had as many as 5,000 members in the 1960s, filling the dining hall and the auditorium on meeting nights.

Since then, membership in the Masons has declined, as it has for other groups such as Rotary and Lions. Members say people just aren’t as interested in getting involved in the community or in joining clubs limited to men, seeking instead activities the whole family can share.

Now the five groups in the lodge have about 1,300 members between them, Adams said, and the burden of an aging, 27,000-square-foot historic landmark weighs heavier with each passing year.

“It’s to the point where our membership is having a hard time supporting it,” he said.

From Daniels to Masons

Josephus and Addie Daniels built their stone home on what was then the edge of Raleigh, where the Williamson farm was being divided into house lots. Daniels was nearing the end of an eight-year tenure as Secretary of the Navy, but still had two more decades of political and journalistic work ahead of him, including eight years as U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Two years after his death in 1948, the Masons bought the property, having outgrown their downtown lodge on Fayetteville Street. They took out the walls between the two largest bedrooms on the second floor and created a meeting room, with wooden seats fixed to risers.

But in many ways, Daniels would immediately recognize his old house. His office just off the front hallway feels the way it might have in his day, and the living room, with its big bay window at one end, is practically unchanged.

“What you’re sitting in now is exactly what it was when Josephus Daniels and his wife lived here,” said Michael Brantley, a member of both rites and Raleigh 500.

Other vestiges from the 1920s include the elevator just off the entry hall; the butler’s pantry; the white-tiled kitchen; the third-floor servants quarters, long used for storage; and the lack of central air conditioning.

What Daniels wouldn’t recognize is the view out back. Where French doors led out to a terrace and a backyard that sloped down to Glenwood Avenue, there’s now the cinderblock temple building clad in stone.

The centerpiece of the building is the auditorium, where rows of cushioned seats look down on a black and white checkerboard floor and a stage beyond. Scenery still hangs in the rafters, and the lighting system, with switches and dimmers, was state of the art when it was installed in the 1950s.

Behind the stage is a robing room, where Masons got into costume for ceremonies, now shared with a choir that uses the building. There also are several rooms that once served as offices for the individual lodges and are now used for storage.

“There’s a lot of vacant space,” Brantley said.

The room once used by Raleigh 500 is filled with boxes of old papers. On top of one pile is a typed announcement of the lodge’s 38th anniversary, dated Jan. 12, 1938.

A 2005 fight

In 2005, the Masons fought and lost an effort to have the historic designation lifted for most of the lodge property. A developer was interested in subdividing the property into lots for houses and townhouses, raising the ire of neighbors and preservationists.

The house had become a National Historic Landmark in 1976, one of only three in the city, along with the State Capitol and Christ Church. The city made it a local landmark in 1990, giving it some protection. The prospect of a development spurred an effort to get the state Department of Cultural Resources to declare it a property of statewide significance.

The Masons questioned whether it should have been declared a national landmark. They allowed that the house is important because of who owned it but argued that the 22,000-square-foot addition and other changes to the property, such as construction of two parking lots, make most of the site unrecognizable as the old Daniels estate.

“There could hardly be a historic site that had been more significantly altered than this site,” David Cronk, then president of the Masonic Temple of Raleigh, wrote to the Department of Cultural Resources in 2005, arguing against having it declared a property of statewide significance. “We feel very strongly that the neighbor’s attempt to have the entire site designated is a blatantly inappropriate attempt to misuse the historic preservation laws to deprive us of the fair and economic use of our property.”

A later request by the Masons to have the property’s National Historic Landmark designation taken away was denied by the National Park Service in 2010.

A question of price

The Masons have had other offers for the property. In 1998, Josephus Daniels’ grandson, Frank Daniels Jr., who was then living next door, offered $1.25 million, but the Masons voted to seek other offers. During the fight over the proposed development in 2005, a group of neighbors and others called the Josephus Daniels House Historic Landmark Association offered $3 million, but that was rejected, too.

The Masons have listed the property for $5.5 million. That’s too much given the limitations of what can be done with it, said Howard of Preservation North Carolina.

“It’s very clear you cannot do extensive subdivision of the property, and it’s priced as if it’s a raw piece of land, which is nonsensical,” Howard said.

What could be done with it? Even if the grounds can’t be altered, Howard thinks someone could restore the house and turn the addition into as many as 15 condos or perhaps an inn. Some sort of organization that needs space that includes a theater would probably be interested, but they’d have to deal with the zoning, he said.

Howard’s dream would be to see the temple addition torn down and “have that house liberated and the landscape restored,” but he knows it’s unlikely someone will buy such a large building only to tear most of it down.

As for the Masons, they’re hoping to find a buyer who will pay enough for them to find a new home, one sized right for the leaner organizations they’ve become.

“We’d find something serviceable for all the bodies,” Brantley said. “But not a vast expanse of unused space.”

Stradling: 919-829-4739

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