Where to Explore L.A.’s Masonic Past (Without Joining the Fraternal Order) | KCET
Where to Explore L.A.’s Masonic Past (Without Joining the Fraternal Order)
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It’s the oldest and largest fraternal organization in the world, yet most of us who aren’t a part of it are still mystified by its symbols, rituals and clandestine operations.
Freemasonry may seem like an Old World tradition — but here in Los Angeles, it reached its peak popularity in the late 1960s!
Unfortunately, membership into Masonic fraternities took a nosedive in the latter part of the last century. That’s after having touted top-notch members such as Douglas Fairbanks, John Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, D.W. Griffith and Oliver Hardy just decades prior.
Although it may have still been ground zero for the illuminati, at some point freemasonry lost its Hollywood-linked glitterati.
But the Masonic brotherhood seems to have piqued the interest of newer generations — and it’s shown signs of rebounding in the 21st century, with former lodges and temples getting reused for new purposes and introducing the uninitiated to the cryptic and enigmatic world of secret handshakes and ancient iconography.
Here are five of the most fascinating Masonic landmarks in Los Angeles where you can get a peek behind the veil — without taking an oath or being sworn to secrecy.
1. Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall, Exposition Park
Angelenos may know The Shrine better as a concert venue or as one of the historic past locations of the Academy Awards ceremony, but take one look at the building, and it comes as no surprise that its roots are Masonic in nature. Technically, it was created as “Al Malaikah Shriners Ancients Arabic Order Nobles of Mystic Shrine” — or, the headquarters for the Al Malaikah Shriners, an adjunct fraternal organization to the Masons. Among its members are Hollywood elite, including Harold Lloyd, Roy Rogers, Clark Gable, Gene Autry and more.
Architects John C. Austin (a 32nd-degree Mason himself) and G. Albert Lansburgh employed the Moorish Revival style both inside and out to evoke Arabic influences and Islamic art in their creation of the largest indoor auditorium in the world — at least, when it opened in 1926, with a capacity of over 6,700 seats — and the world’s largest crystal chandelier, 20 feet in diameter and weighing 4 tons. Today, you can still enter beneath the building’s arches, spires and domes and into its glassed-in vestibules, and you can still watch a show under a tent-like plaster canopy and feel just like a desert nomad.
Visit the Shriners’ temple during one of their semi-annual open houses, where you can take a tour of the theater and learn about the fraternity’s current work with Shriners Hospitals for Children. While you’re there, you can also explore the Grace Dee Mays Museum (off the third floor lobby) and learn about Shriners International’s history with the Shrine Circus and all of its past potentates (or head executives, who serve for one-year terms). There’s memorabilia galore — and plenty of ephemera bearing the characteristic symbols of the Shriners, including the fez and its emblem, a scimitar (or curved sword) with a crescent made of two claws embellished with a sphinx head and a five-pointed star. Non-Shriners are welcome!
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2. Geffen Playhouse, Westwood
Just around the corner from Westwood Boulevard and the heart of Westwood Village — right across from the UCLA campus — you’ll find one of the first 12 structures in the area, now known as Geffen Playhouse. But it wasn’t originally designed for live theater — or even for anyone outside of UCLA students or alumni. It started out in 1929 as the Masonic Affiliates Clubhouse, built for the UCLA community members who happened to be related to Masons — or who wanted to become a masons. In the 1920s, that wasn’t an unusual amenity on college campuses throughout the U.S. but the association between freemasonry and UCLA was much more prevalent back then than it is today.
Janss Investment Corporation originally founded Westwood as a college town, establishing a strict architectural theme that required buildings to be designed primarily in a Spanish-Mediterranean style with a maximum height of just two or three stories. The design created by architect Stiles O. Clements of Morgan, Walls & Clements fit the bill — with the unique addition of a courtyard fountain made of Malibu Tile. You can see the same patterns at the Adamson House in Malibu, which Clements also designed as architect.
Like other former Masonic structures, this clubhouse — completed the same year UCLA was founded — saw many other uses before its current one. During World War II, it was converted into barracks for the U.S. Army. In the wake of the decline of freemasonry, the Masons sold it to Swedish couple Donald and Kristen Combs, who opened their Contempo furniture store there in 1971 and expanded the Contempo Westwood Center to also encompass a legit theater (then called Westwood Playhouse) in 1975 and Stratton’s Restaurant in 1976. UCLA purchased the complex in 1994 and, the following year, renamed it Geffen Playhouse after donor David Geffen. Catch a show at the landmark restored theater — and look for the Masonic motto “Let There Be Light” engraved on its cornerstone.
3. Hollywood Masonic Temple/El Capitan Entertainment Center, Hollywood
Hollywood Lodge No. 355 had been located in a simple brick structure on Hollywood Boulevard — at the current site of the Dolby Theatre — but in 1921, the masons moved across the street to their grandiose new home, where they stayed for nearly a half-century. The 34,000-square-foot temple was designed in the Greek Revival style by architect John C. Austin (as was The Shrine Auditorium, as above), along with his team at the Austin, Field & Fry firm.
Now Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument No. 277, it was the brainchild of the “father of Hollywood,” developer Charles E. Toberman. It was his idea to price memberships to the “club” at a premium in order to fund the imposing temple’s construction — and although they sold like hotcakes at first, many of those with Hollywood fortunes lost them during the Great Depression. Membership declined — and after rebounding for a time and leasing out the street-level space to several businesses (including a restaurant and, accidentally, an illegal gambling operation), the masons finally sold their grand lodge in the 1970s.
It still stands next to The El Capitan with its six granite columns out front and its Masonic symbolism and mystical inscriptions about brotherhood amidst the Free and Accepted Masons. The Walt Disney Company’s Buena Vista Theaters division purchased it in 1998 — along with El Capitan next door — and since 2002 it has been known as the El Capitan Entertainment Center and used as a showcase for Disney productions and, most recently, tapings of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” That means you’ve got a chance to get inside — just request your free tickets to join the live studio audience inside the former Masonic hall through the online form.
4. Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood
Plenty of Angelenos have heard of the “Masonic Lodge” at Hollywood Forever Cemetery without understanding its esoteric origins. After all, its exterior wall is where Cinespia projects its outdoor movie screenings and its auditorium is where the cemetery hosts concerts and other cultural events. But although the Spanish Baroque-style structure has been stripped of many of its visible ties to freemasonry — at least on the outside — it once served as the home base for the members of the Southland Lodge No. 617.
Now designated a national historic landmark, the Morgan, Walls & Clements-designed lodge was completed in 1931 with interiors (including lighting fixtures and furnishings) also designed by the firm in the Spanish Renaissance style. The masons used the entire complex as a community center — but only until the 1960s, when they vacated. The property stood essentially abandoned at the Santa Monica Boulevard entrance of the cemetery for three decades.
Most of the building is now part of the cemetery’s administration complex, but the upstairs main meeting room retains its wood beam ceilings and mystical energy. Behind that concrete façade, the lodge still holds a few secrets because its interior is only accessible during special events and to those with a ticket. Check the cemetery’s online event calendar for your upcoming opportunities to check it out for yourself.
5. Scottish Rite Temple, Mid-Wilshire
The former Wilshire Boulevard home of the Freemasons of the Scottish Rite Order was briefly open to the public after it transformed into the Marciano Art Foundation in 2017. But an abrupt — and somewhat mysterious — closure in 2019 just adds to the eccentric history of this 90,000-square-foot monolith of L.A.’s Mid-Wilshire neighborhood, which the masons of the Scottish Rite once called a "cathedral."
Before the building languished for decades — hosting boxing matches and troops during the L.A. Riots, and then falling into disuse — its members produced many mysterious stage plays there. These were elaborately costumed with wigs, medieval tunics, and other regalia, and featured the “Masonic ideals of a Supreme Being.” Some of those theatrical artifacts — and other Masonic memorabilia — were once displayed in the American Heritage Masonic Museum, which opened on the temple’s second floor in 2002. But even though the collection had been preserved as part of the Marciano renovation in the “Relic Room,” it’s currently no longer accessible to the public.
So, the Scottish Rite Temple is officially closed for now, but swing by anyway, even just to pay homage to the temple’s architect and mosaicist, Millard Sheets, who called it "one of the most exciting projects I ever had anything to do with." The Marcianos tragically stripped this monumental structure of some of its characteristic touches (including epigrams on the west façade) — but the east façade still has a 70-foot-high mosaic mural that depicts the historical timeline of the great builders of temples, from Jerusalem circa 900 B.C. to California in the 19th century. Keep an eye out for other Masonic symbols like the square and compasses, the double-headed eagle, the Eye of Providence and working tools.
Bonus: Lodge Room, Highland Park
Completed in 1923, the brick-clad Highland Park Masonic Temple originally included street level retail shops — an income source for the masons right downstairs from their lodge and banquet hall. Yet another Mason served as its architect — Elmore Robinson Jeffery of Jeffery and Schaefer Architects, a Royal Arch Chapter officer, who designed it in the Italian Renaissance Revival style.
Even with the businesses paying rent downstairs, the Masons couldn’t afford to perform seismic retrofitting and, in 1983, were forced to sell their Lodge 382, though it had served as their home for six decades.
The former temple’s main gathering space on the second floor reopened in late 2017 as a live music venue called the Lodge Room, which books acts every weekend and many weeknights. Check the online calendar for the latest schedule.
When you visit, look above the entrance that faces Ave 56 to see the inscription of “HIGHLAND PARK F&AM” (Free & Accepted Masons). Cast your gaze even farther up to see friezes emblazoned with Masonic motifs, like the square-and-compass icon. Inside, keep your eyes open for unique finishes and features in the windowless room — like original wood paneling, murals, Masonic insignia and a ceiling light fixture inspired by the Order of the Eastern Star, an appendant body of the Masonic Fraternity. There’s even a secret door (of course there is).
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Top Image: A sculpture at Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall. | Sandi Hemmerlein
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