Hidden in Plain Sight: The Detroit Masonic Temple

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Detroit Masonic Temple

Many of us who live in southeast Michigan have visited the Detroit Masonic Temple for one reason or another.  The facility is popular for weddings and parties, is the home court of the Detroit Derby Girls, and boasts two beautiful performance spaces (the Masonic Temple Theater and the Jack White Theater).  More recently, the Masonic has become home base for Theatre Bizarre, a popular masquerade event which will once again take place in October.  To add to this, it’s still a functioning Freemason lodge.

Having visited the Masonic many times myself, I had considerable curiosity regarding the parts of the building which I haven’t seen (which means most of it).  Since I recently learned that public tours of the building were being offered, I called and made arrangements with John Snider.  Among other service to the Masonic Temple Association, John is head docent and manages the tour schedule, working with select other docents to ensure tours are fulfilled.

John is a thirty-third degree Freemason —the highest Masonic degree in the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry—and is a well of knowledge regarding the history of the Masons as both an organization, and as individual contributors to history.  He was kind enough to conduct an unexpectedly detailed, fun, enthralling tour with me and five other people who are equally keen on learning about the less-visible parts of history

Here are just a few take-aways from our tour:

The Masons have played a significant role in history.

Throughout the course of the tour, a theme to John’s stories developed: The subjects were Freemasons.  George Washington, Paul Revere, Shakespeare, James Smithson (the founding donor of the Smithsonian), and many more.  An organization with records dating to 926 AD, according to John, can be expected to have influential members among its ranks. However, the Masons can claim among its brotherhood some of history’s most iconic figures.  Others on the tour had this to say about the Masons’ historical significance:

“I’ll admit I knew nothing of the Masonic Temple walking in, beyond the fact that Detroit Derby Girls play there and Jack White paid the taxes so it could stay open. But what I’ve come away with is a deeper understanding of the role the Masons played in Michigan’s—and the nation’s—history.”Melissa Cox

“I didn’t realize there was so much history surrounding the Masonic Temple and such purpose behind every aspect of the architecture. The one story that made the greatest impression on me was regarding the fact that there is such a large Masonic influence on the names of the counties within the state of Michigan.”Rachell Weeks

The Masons aren’t secretive, they’re private.

I came into our tour largely unfamiliar with the Masons, with the exception of whatever “lessons” I happened to pick up from passing interactions with Dan Brown novels.  During the course of our conversation with John, I learned that an important component of the Masons’ mission is the life-long participatory education of its members.

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Part of the ceiling in the Masonic’s main entryway. What’s the symbolism here? Photo by Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: @Bruno_VZ)

One important aspect of true engagement with education is the ability to test ideas in a safe space.  In the context of an ongoing conversation about education, John hammered home the difference between secrecy and privacy.  Masons are often thought of as secretive.  However, central to the organization’s approach to creating a safe space for debating ideas, is the notion of privacy. Others on the tour were also struck by these points regarding members’ education:

“Especially as public discourse devolves into polarizing soundbytes, I can certainly see the need for a protected space where someone can say the world is round, even if the masses insist it’s flat.” –Melissa Cox

“I learned the importance of a shared heritage and an understanding of each person’s place within that narrative. All of history is a story and it is just a matter of understanding what that story means to your perspective and growth as a person.”Joanna Dueweke

The Temple is full of symbolism, hidden in plain sight.

Anyone with access to a browser and a little interest can easily learn that the Masonic Temple has over 1,000 rooms. Of those rooms, 142 are men’s bathrooms while only 8 are designated for women.  Many of us have visited some of these rooms.  The Masons are masters of hiding symbolism and messaging in plain sight.

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False grave in the floor of a lodge room. Photo by Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: @Bruno_VZ)

For example, at either end of the main entryway on Temple St. are the words “veritas” (truth) and “fortitudo” (strength). Freemasons stress the importance of living in line with these two virtues. When entering and departing the building, one is reminded to continue to strive to meet this expectation. Indeed, architect George D. Mason designed the building so that members and visitors could literally stand between, and in line with, these words.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the tour involved some of the symbolism that’s even more removed from public view. For example, we had the opportunity to visit a few different lodge rooms.  Everything in those rooms is present for a reason deeply rooted in history and the organization’s philosophies—including the false grave built into each room’s floor.  Why is there a grave, you ask?  Fair question.  The Masons’ teachings revolve around three life stages: “Youth, manhood, and old age.” According to John, in order to further each member’s understanding of old age and mortality, some Masonic rituals incorporate these shallow false graves.

Bruno Vanzieleghem found this part of the tour intriguing as well: “In all this sensory overload, what left the strongest impression on me was the stark visual reminder of mortality. A seam and two brass handles are all that is visible of the symbolic grave in each lodge room. A grave that reminds you our time here is limited and we should strive to make a positive impression.”

Arrange a tour for yourself

Ultimately, this article doesn’t—can’t—do justice to the experience of being at the Detroit Masonic Temple with someone as knowledgeable as John.  In addition to the many anecdotes and historical lessons we learned, the tour was also extremely sensory in nature.  We were continuously inundated with sounds, sights, smells, and textures which are best understood through experience.

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This room at the Masonic Temple is reserved for men only. Photo by Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: @Bruno_VZ)

In addition, it is important to acknowledge that the issues of race and gender, which the Masons continue to face, are not addressed here.  We engaged in a long and nuanced conversation with John on these topics.  A specific scholarly literature exists on these important subjects, and those who contribute to that literature do so deeply and with great respect.

If your interest in the Masonic Temple and the Freemasons is piqued, give John a call to arrange a tour.  He can be reached at 313-832-7100.

Feel compelled to help support the Detroit Masonic Temple infrastructure?  Learn more about the Masonic Building Preservation Fund and their needs here.

What stories do you have about the Masonic Temple?  Been to any great events or shows there?  Intriguing historical facts? Tell us about it!

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Hi, I'm Shannon and I'm proud to be from Michigan. Some things I enjoy: Cooking, craft beer, most kinds of music, travel, learning things, tattoos, driving, being on boats, water in general, being out of my comfort zone, history not printed in books (the real stories...), cats and dogs, imperfection, girls and boys, live (loud) rock 'n' roll shows, deep voices, smart people, sarcasm, dry wit, consideration, thunder, nerdiness, trying to explain complicated concepts in digestible ways, bourbon, stream-of-consciousness writing, Ford trucks from the 80s, people with useful skills, the color blue.