American Lodges open their doors

In the New York Times
A replica of a mildewed 14th- century scroll has been unfurled and displayed at a library in New York. An eagle clutching arrows and ribbons, on a tattered flag made around 1803, has just been restored and framed for viewing at a Philadelphia museum. Near Boston a museum exhibition decodes cryptic symbols like compasses and columns embossed on metal badges and embroidered onto aprons. That the public is now being enthusiastically shown these previously hidden-away items indicates that Freemasons in America are trying to shed their reclusive, somewhat fusty image. Tour guides at the groups’ lavishly ornamented lodges, mostly built around 1900, are explaining ceremonial rituals in newly restored rooms with murals of ancient builders polishing stones and vitrines full of gold pendants and domed velvet hats.
“We’re trying to help more people hear our story accurately,” said H. Robert Huke, the communications and development director at the Grand Lodge of Masons of Massachusetts, an 1899 state headquarters in downtown Boston covered in sunburst mosaics. When curiosity seekers get to visit Masonic rooms, he added, “they’re less inclined to think we’re trying to control the world and run the banks.”
Freemasons have been portrayed as conspirators in books like Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” and “The Lost Symbol (due on Sept. 15) and the “National Treasure” movies starring Nicolas Cage. The truth is less entertaining. Founded around 1600 by British stonemasons, the men-only clubs hold closed sessions mainly to teach ecumenical ethics codes and raise money for charity, especially medical care. On their lodge walls and ceremonial clothing, motifs like eyes, beehives and drafting tools refer to virtues like steadfastness, tolerance and industriousness. As befits an organization set up by builders, the clubs are now spending millions of dollars repairing their architectural splendors. In the last year the Masons in Boston have restored spaces with gilded, coffered ceilings and imposing names like the Chamber of Reflection and Corinthian Hall.
Last fall the main Philadelphia lodge finished redoing its turreted roof, granite exterior, murals of woodlands and an early 1800s flag. The public now enters via the forbidding 17-foot-tall front doorway, formerly accessible to Freemasons only.
In Washington, Masons are overhauling a pyramidal building based on a Greek mausoleum while planning new galleries for videos and displays of “magnificent regalia,” said Arturo de Hoyos, the group’s archivist. He added, “We want to create a coherent presentation on the origins, development and meaning of Freemasonry.”
As curators bring dusty Masonic objects out of storage and acquire new ones, docents are explaining the symbolism to noninitiates, men and women. (Many lodges now have Web sites announcing tour times and some even offer 360-degree views of the interiors.) At 71 West 23rd Street in Manhattan, officially called the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York, guides now point out the library’s modern copy of a 1308 transcript from papal heresy interrogations of Knights Templar and to a meeting hall’s portrait of a black man in a fur anorak; he’s Matthew Henson, a Freemason, who accompanied Robert Peary on Arctic expeditions.
The Massachusetts Masons own so many artifacts — about 12,000 at last count — that in the last few years they have lent them to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Mass. Through Oct. 25 highlights of the lodge treasury are on view at the museum, including a gold urn and silver ladle by Paul Revere. (In the 1790s, he was the group’s most worshipful grand master.) A show opening Sept. 26 will survey anti-Masonic screeds from the last three centuries that accuse members of plotting against royalty or propping up Communism.
There will always be people who are suspicious” of Freemasons, Mr. de Hoyos said. “But even if we’re mentioned negatively, that gets people asking questions and coming here. It opens doors.”
(To be continued)