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A Masonic Temple with an Eccentric History Re-Opens as a Contemporary Art Museum

The hottest ticket in Los Angeles at the moment isn’t for a new restaurant, a pop concert or a sports showdown – it’s for the re-opening of a Masonic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard, now the home of the Marciano Art Foundation.

The temple now houses the contemporary art of the Marciano Art Foundation. I Robert Wedemeyer / Courtesy of Marciano Art Foundation
The temple now houses the contemporary art of the Marciano Art Foundation. I Robert Wedemeyer / Courtesy of Marciano Art Foundation

Arriving ticket-holders will notice large statues, mosaic murals and symbols on the outside, and may wonder about the building and the people who were here before the contemporary art collection moved in.

“It’s one of the most beautiful Scottish Rite Temple that ever existed,” says Susan Aberth, associate professor of Art History at Bard College and curator of the Relic Room, which is located in the former Temple library at this newly-reborn art space.

USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection, Nov. 11, 1961
USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection, Nov. 11, 1961

At over 110,000 square feet and four stories in height, this Wilshire Boulevard landmark was one of a few such Temples in California – the others being in San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland. Most states only had a small number because they were so expensive, and this one opened at a cost of over $4 million on Nov. 11, 1961. 

It was designed by acclaimed artist and designer Millard Sheets to house a 2,000-seat auditorium, 1,500-seat dining room and other communal areas. Sheets was the only non-Mason considered, but was well-known for his stunning mosaics on L.A. City Hall and dozens of Home Savings and Loan Banks. He was also director of Otis College of Art and Design (then called Otis Art Institute) at the time.

All-but abandoned since the 90s, the Temple has once again come alive, re-purposed and renovated by architect Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY Architecture and Design. Inside, eye-catching artwork peppers every corner: Paul McCarthy’s royal blue, plastic balloon dog; Takashi Murakami’s manga sculptures and, of course, and Jim Shaw’s purple-orange fiery hell surrounded by snakes and demons.  

But one room not to miss amid the plethora of the new and trendy is the Relic Room, which pays tribute to the Temple’s former Masonic occupants and highlights their unexpectedly vivid and colorful outlook.

Ceremonial and status headwear, aprons, banners, pendants, symbols, tools and other ephemera are on display, but there are also wigs, mustaches, trunks of costumes and make-up dummies that Aberth discovered dusty and unused for decades in the basement dressing rooms.

They seemed more likely to be found backstage at a working theatre than in a Temple of what many still see as a secretive, even occultist, organization, yet that’s exactly what this building was built for.

The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (to give them their full title) was housed in the 1961 Scottish Rite Masonic Temple. At the time, it was a kind of university for Masons who had already achieved the first three degrees of membership and wanted to be initiated all the way up to the 32nd degree (the 33rd was an honorific title awarded to “stars” of the organization, Aberth notes).

Initiation to these upper levels involved observing and taking part in complex one-act plays that featured the Masonic ideals of a Supreme Being, and posed ethical and moral dilemmas in historical scenarios – hence the need for costumes and wigs.

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“Even today these plays are not fully understood, and the scripts for them are a closely guarded secret,” says Aberth, adding that she’s also still uncertain about her favorite item in the Relic Room: a velvet rose in a glass orb.

The Masons were not a religious organization per se, and though many lodges were started by groups of friends, neighbors, industry professionals or people with similar ethnic backgrounds, the Scottish Rite had a pointedly mixed membership, and welcomed members from all backgrounds.

Details at the Masonic Temple / James Bartlett
Memorabilia in the Relic Room | James Bartlett

Because of its proximity to the Hollywood studios, the Los Angeles lodges naturally had many members from the movie and television industry (the memorial for silent movie star Harold Lloyd was here), and so it was inevitable that they took particular pride in making their ceremonies as stunning and realistic as possible – even if the stubbornly all-male membership meant someone had to put on a dress and wear make-up.

Staff from the Marciano Art Foundation found a number of vast, ornate painted backdrops that had been used in these extravaganzas, and several of them (along with some wigs) were incorporated into their opening exhibit, “The Wig Museum” by Jim Shaw.

The Relic Room is not the only reminder of the building’s history however.

One of Sheets’ grand murals is still in situ is behind a specially-built wall and features animals of California, ancient native glittering golden trees, stunning blue shapes and some unusual creatures. There are also mosaic water fountains in the marble lobby, and one of gold on the mezzanine. 

Mural at the Masonic Temple / James Bartlett
Mural at the Masonic Temple | James Bartlett

Outside there’s another gold-accented Byzantine-inspired mosaic mural on east end of the Temple. It shows important architectural monuments and places important to Freemasons including King Solomon of Jerusalem, Babylon ruler Nimrod, the stonemasons who built the Gothic cathedral at Reims, France, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, with King Edward VII – a grand master – in full regalia, and the first Grand Lodge in California at Sacramento.

There are other symbols that most will recognize as being Masonic at the main entrance too; the square and compass, the Scottish Rite’s “logo” of the double-headed eagle, stonemason tools, the letter G (for Geometry), the Eye of Providence, which represents the all-seeing eye of God, and other tools and items that are also symbolic of values and ideals.

Unmissable are the travertine statues, carved by sculptor Albert Stewart, which line part of the wall facing the Boulevard. They all represent notable Masons from history, including American founding father George Washington, St Paul’s Cathedral architect Sir Christopher Wren, the two Saint Johns of Freemasonry (Baptist and Evangelist), and Egyptian builder Imhotep.

With such a long and celebrated history, the life of this building as a Scottish Rite Temple was surprisingly a short one. Most were built in the 1920s, and this Temple only lasted around 30 years or so before its membership dwindled, and the building was put on the market in 1994.

Its sale prompted a history of ad hoc use for the building. It hosted a number of LAPD memorials, and was a temporary base for National Guard troops during the 1992 riots. More recently, crowds have turned up for boxing matches, pop concerts and raves. It finally closed to the public for many years because of L.A.’s notorious zoning laws until the building was purchased by Maurice and Paul Marciano, co-founders of the Guess Jeans label.

There was even a pre-cursor of sorts to the Relic Room.

In November 2002, the American Heritage Masonic Museum quietly opened as the first step in a plan to rebrand the building as the Wilshire International Pavilion. Neither of them were a success, and most people had no idea what the unusual windowless building was for.   

Hollywood tried to save the day, shooting some scenes here for the 2004 action/adventure movie “National Treasure” starring Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger and John Voight, but its box office windfall of $350m didn’t reverse any fortunes at the Temple.

Aberth has good news for Freemasonry, though. She feels that there’s been a surge in interest and membership among a spiritually-curious younger generation after a “long, precipitous decline,” though she does admit that there are very few active Scottish Rite Temples left.

The Marciano Art Foundation paid $8 million for this iconic building several years ago, and now it has a different role to play.

Details on the walls of the temple | Sandi Hemmerlein
Details on the walls of the temple. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Details at the Masonic Temple | Sandi Hemmerlein
Details at the Masonic Temple | Sandi Hemmerlein
Millard Sheets mosaic mural | Sandi Hemmerlein
Millard Sheets mosaic mural | Sandi Hemmerlein
Memorabilia inside the Relic Room | Sandi Hemmerlein
Memorabilia inside the Relic Room | Sandi Hemmerlein
Memorabilia inside the Relic Room | Sandi Hemmerlein
Memorabilia inside the Relic Room | Sandi Hemmerlein
Masonic memorabilia | Sandi Hemmerlein
Masonic memorabilia | Sandi Hemmerlein
Mural on the wall. | Sandi Hemmerlein
Mural on the wall. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Open Thursday/Friday 11am-5pm, Saturday 10am-6pm
4357 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles 90010
Tel: (424) 204 -7555
Tickets are free
www.marcianoartfoundation.org

Top image: Yoshiro Makino / Courtesy of wHY and Marciano Art Foundation

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