Scottish Rite Cathedral has long been home to the mysterious Masons
The Scottish Rite Cathedral, one of Galveston’s rare Art Deco treasures, anchors the corner of 22nd and Church streets, in a downtown known for its opulent Victorian architecture.
It’s a sleek, stone structure with geometric embellishments designed by H. Jordan Mackenzie for Alfred C. Finn, a prominent Houston architect commissioned to build the cathedral.
Finn gave the Master Masons his personal pledge, declaring it to be the only storm and fireproof building on Galveston Island, according to Clyde Wood, a 33rd Degree Mason and the current building manager.
Finn said it would never flood and never burn.
And it never has.
This October, Galveston’s Scottish Rite — the first in Texas — will celebrate its 150th anniversary.
This is the third home of the San Felipe Lodge of Perfection, the first Scottish Rite Lodge in Texas, chartered in 1867.
Since the new cathedral was built in 1928, it has served as an impenetrable shelter through the 15 hurricanes that have landed on the island or nearby.
In the hours before Hurricane Ike ripped through Galveston in 2008, Wood gathered some of the senior members of the lodge, who had refused to leave the island, and brought them with their families to the Scottish Rite.
Before the storm made landfall, Wood went to the veranda and played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes.
Many downtown residents who had not left before the storm heard those reassuring strains.
At the height of the hurricane, storm water came up about 10 feet at the Scottish Rite building, lapping at the front door, but never gaining admission.
A streamlined structure
Modernistic Art Deco was coming into vogue in the late 1920s when the new cathedral was conceived. Although the building is less flamboyant than some, it holds true to the basic forms, with its repeating stylized patterns along the roofline and sweeping, vertical lines.
The streamlined structure is a large square box on a base of pink Texas granite with tan brick fronted by sandstone and concrete. On its eastern edge, a loggia, or covered gallery with five arches, balances the main entrance on the western corner.
The entry sits about 10 feet above the street level and has two, 400-pound bronze doors with matching lanterns mounted on either side.
Crowning the building is the double-headed eagle, the insignia of the Scottish Rite. The stylized symbols spaced around the entry represent the areas of Masonic mysteries.
“Plans for the new cathedral began immediately after a fire turned the previous lodge to ash,” Wood said.
The new building was on the same site as Harmony Hall, the extravagant masterwork of architect Nicholas J. Clayton.
‘A demon fire’
It was acquired by the Scottish Rite Masons after the 1900 Storm and served as the group’s headquarters until the building was destroyed by fire on Feb. 5, 1928. Originally, it served as the Jewish Community Center.
A front page story in The Galveston Daily News on the following day said: “A demon fire licked his way ravenously through the rich furnishings, gutted the building, cracked its wall with fiery breath, and sent flying debris into the streets where thousands of Galvestonians stood helplessly by.”
But not every treasure was lost.
“Back then, many of the Masons worked downtown and even as the building burned, they were able to save many of the library books and some of the furniture,” said Abbie Hughes, a master Mason and member of the Scottish Rite for 56 years.
Piece by piece
“They moved almost everything, even the grandfather clock, from the hall’s first floor to the Kahn & Levy Building directly across the street. Levy, a Mason, stored them until the new building was complete.”
The elaborate Italian marble staircase also was saved, salvaged from the charred remains.
“It was removed piece by piece, cleaned and given a place in our new home,” Wood said.
In fact, the surviving staircase became a centerpiece for the current cathedral.
“The members of the building committee were men of great common sense and they actively guided Finn in the building’s construction,” Hughes said.
Floods and fires figured prominently in the fears and fortunes of islanders in the early 20th century, despite completion of the protective seawall and the grade raising. The storm’s devastation carved a permanent scar on the psyche of island residents, so the promise of invincibility was warmly received.
“Finn studied flooding patterns and raised the first floor of the building to an elevation he was certain was secure; he used materials like stone and metal that would not burn,” Wood said.
In the 67-page contract on file at the Rosenberg Library History Center, every process and material to be used in the building’s construction is described. Finn emphasized non-flammable materials and only used a limited amount of wood, for shelving, window frames, interior doors and trim.
One of the leaders of the Art Deco movement in Texas, Finn was also the architect for the Sakowitz Department Store and Cullen Building in Houston, the Galveston Post Office and Court House, and the San Jacinto Monument. Finn’s archives are at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center.
A walk inside
The cathedral has 32,300 square feet of interior space divided between three floors, a basement and a raised area on the northern side where the stage scenery is stored.
The first floor houses the library, the dining hall and the exuberant Egyptian lodge room, all with 14-foot ceilings. There is also a ladies’ area furnished in wicker and an office space with a bank vault for important papers.
The library is furnished with deep, leather-bound chairs and comfortable rockers arranged in conversational settings. A decorative fireplace serves as a focal point, but it does not burn.
“Originally, there were radiators in the building, but now it’s heated with a furnace,” Wood said.
The library’s glass-fronted shelves are made of maple and hold more than 4,000 books, including some first editions.
“There are Masonic references, spiritual texts, but also a wide assortment of 19th-century and modern books, including a collection of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry and even children’s books,” he said.
A hairline crack
The recreation hall is adjacent to the library and now serves as a dining area. This room once was reserved for billiards, bridge and other games. An original, restored billiard table is a popular pastime for members.
A hairline crack snakes along the western edge of the room, a remnant of the Texas City explosion, which shook neighboring towns in April 1947.
“The only water to enter the building in Hurricane Ike was a misty spray forced through the crack by rising waters,” Wood said.
Thirty-two marble stairs curve upward to the second floor to the grand theater with its 30-foot ceilings. Used for ceremonial productions, it has hundreds of hand-painted canvas backdrops depicting a three-dimensional Greek temple, a cathedral, a castle, a forest, an Egyptian shrine, heaven and hell. Also in the theater is a 1256-pipe organ in working condition, although in need of cleaning and minor repairs, Wood said.
When it was built, the theater contained an early air-conditioning system, which used blocks of ice and giant fans to cool the enormous space.
Next to the theater is the grand ballroom with its 25-foot ceilings, elevated orchestra pit and commercial kitchen.
The third floor features a wood-paneled boardroom, offices and storage.
A secret society?
The most magical space in the building is the Egyptian room where lodge ceremonies and meetings are held.
Hieroglyphics etched on the red, green and turquoise walls include images of the Ankh, a cartouche with beetle, a hybrid mix of a lotus blossom and a Scottish thistle and other symbols of immortality, Wood said.
He interprets the symbols as the “house of immortality.”
There is a link between Egyptian metaphysical tradition and the Scottish Rite.
Freemasonry is a system of self-improvement tested over centuries. Scottish Rite is one of two branches of Freemasonry, dating from the early 1700s in Europe.
And few organizations are as mysterious and intriguing as that of the fraternal organization of the Freemasons.
“It’s funny, it goes from one extreme to another,” Wood said. “When you say ‘Freemason,’ some people, particularly younger ones, say, ‘What’s that?’ Then there are conspiracy theorists who say we are trying to control the world. We can’t even decide what color of paint we want to use.”
Wood agrees with some members who say Freemasons aren’t so much secretive, as they are private.
“It’s a fraternal organization devoted to perfecting one’s self and cultivating morality, integrity and friendship, with strict accountability,” Wood said.
Scottish Rite masonry is open to all Master Masons. A master Mason is a Freemason who has earned the first three degrees. Freemasonry is open to men of all religions and ethnicities. It requires a belief in a supreme being and the immortality of the soul.
A chance to tour it
Still, not a lot of people know about Freemasons, Wood concedes. And some people might wonder what they contribute to the community, he said.
But the organization is philanthropic. Its Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas treats many of the world’s most complex orthopedic cases, as well as certain related arthritic and neurological disorders and learning disorders, such as dyslexia.
The hospital was established in 1921 when a group of Texas Masons approached Dallas’ first orthopedic surgeon, Dr. W.B. Carrell, about caring for children with polio regardless of the family’s ability to pay. All services are provided without charge to patient families.
To preserve and maintain the building, the Scottish Rite now rents out the building, including the theater with its stage settings for weddings and events.
In celebration of 150 years, the Scottish Rite will open the building on Oct. 9 for tours, a reception and a formal dinner. Tickets are available at galvestonscottishrite.org.