Object Lesson: Masonic Temple Detroit

Take a deep dive into the history of the largest Masonic Temple in the world.
Photograph courtesy of Masonic Temple Detroit

One hundred and three years ago this Thanksgiving, crews broke ground on this downtown architectural masterpiece. Here are a few things you may not know about the “house” that Jack saved.

What is it?

Architect George D. Mason built this 210-foot, 550,000-square-foot Detroit structure — the largest Masonic temple in the world — between 1920 and 1926. The Masonic Temple Association of Detroit commissioned it after rapidly outgrowing its original temple on Lafayette Boulevard downtown.

Crews broke ground on Thanksgiving Day 1920 and, in 1922, laid the cornerstone with a trowel once used by none other than President George Washington (a Freemason) during the U.S. Capitol building’s construction.

The then-$6.5 million project was meant to be a meeting space for Masonic orders, as well as a civic center for Detroit residents. Today, the building still serves both purposes.

What type of architectural style would you call this?

The near century-old building stands 14 stories high and features looming limestone figures and design references to an infamously secretive organization. Mason selected the style as a nod to the origins of Freemasonry. Though previous Masonic temples were typically modeled after Egyptian or Greek architectural styles, Mason opted for Gothic revival architecture of 18th- and 19th-century London, where the Freemasons’ first Grand Lodge was established in 1717.

Inside, an intricate lobby amplifies the time-honored architecture, welcoming visitors with chandeliers and archways modeled after a castle that architectural sculptor Corrado Parducci toured in Palermo, Sicily — a far cry from the building’s Cass Corridor locale.

Who saved it?

In 2013, Detroit native Jack White — whose rich performance history at the temple includes proposing to and marrying St. Clair Shores-born musician Olivia Jean mid-concert in 2022 — paid $142,000 in back taxes on the building. It was an act of charity that saved the temple from foreclosure and led to the apt renaming of the Scottish Rite Cathedral Theatre to the Jack White Theatre (since changed to the Masonic Cathedral Theatre).

What’s inside?

As one might infer from its towering facade, it has a massive interior. The Masonic Temple plays host to a number of organizations (notably, multiple Masonic bodies) and events within its 1,037-room structure. There’s a ritual building, a chapel, lodge meeting parlors, and a workroom — known in Freemasonry as the Commandery Asylum — styled after a room in the Tower of London.

The building also boasts two auditoriums; a third was abandoned due to lack of funds and remains unfinished to this day. If completed, it would have made the Masonic Temple the only building in the world at the time to house three theaters.

Today, the auditoriums are used for concerts and live performances. There are also two ballrooms designed to accommodate weddings and other large events. Detroit Roller Derby now uses the drill hall, complete with a floating floor laid on felt cushions once intended to soften the impact for marchers.

Other unique features, including a barber shop, billiards room, bowling alley, and indoor swimming pool, have since been removed or are no longer in use.

What’s up with the cryptic symbols and statues?

Scattered throughout the temple’s design are decorative details and symbols that represent Masonic tenets, including a brass emblem on the lobby floor signifying truth; craft motifs and figures adorning six elevator doors and the building’s exterior; and the Latin words veritas and fortitudo (meaning truth and strength, respectively) engraved on either side of the Temple Street entryway, literally positioning anyone who enters at the center of these virtues.

This story is from the November 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition