Masonic Temple, Locust Street, Knoxville, October 2011
If you walk around downtown very much and certainly if your wandering ever takes you down Locust Street, you’ve probably noticed the large beige building with the words “Masonic Temple” standing guard across the front of the massive white columns. I’ve cast the odd surreptitious glance in that direction, just a little nervous about the whole affair. I’ve read The Da Vinci Code and I’m not sure how much is fact and how much is fiction. When they offered an open house recently, I steeled my courage, picked up my camera and knocked on the door.
Grandfather Clock just inside the entrance
Grand Stairwell in foyer
I was greeted by friendly men, though my anxiety lingered past the front door. Did I sense secrecy and half-answers to my questions or had I expected cloak-and-dagger goings on and so I remained suspicious? Larry Viles pretty quickly attached himself to me and seemed eager to talk about the history of the home and to offer some answers to my questions about the Masons. I didn’t follow all the answers and the information quickly became overwhelming; words spinning around in my head like “Scottish Rites,” “Free-Masonry” and “Crusades.” Wait. What? Did he say “Crusades,” as in THE Crusades? He did.
Larry Vines and Erick Tuck, Masonic Temple, Knoxville
The “he” by this time was Erick Tuck, who, I believe, was addressed as “Admiral,” but I may have begun hallucinating by that time from a lack of oxygen as I held my breath. He was bedecked in a suit worth of the name if it wasn’t, in fact, used. And he brought up the Knights Templar, seemingly with pride, as if Dan Brown had never written a book. He indicated that they held a prominent role in the Crusades and one branch of the Masons is somehow connected to them. I thought we’d all agreed that the Crusades were not such a good idea.
The home itself seemed to be quite a source of pride for each of them and, indeed, there are beautiful portions here and there: The large stairwell in the entrance, built in shelves and ornate fireplaces. An impressive grandfather clock stands beside the front door, though it may not date back to the original structure. The original house was built in 1872 by Charles McClung McGhee whose names everyone in Knoxville will recognize. He entertained Rutherford B. Hayes in the home and lived there until his death in 1907. In 1916, the same year Kendrick Place (formerly Masonic Court) was built next door, the Masons purchased the home for $25,000.
Assembly Hall for the Eastern Star, Masonic Temple, Knoxville
The tour inside the remainder of the structure revealed occasional older touches mixed with seventies decor: red tile in the foyer, cheap paneling and drop-tile ceilings one might expect in the fellowship hall of a rural church. The two, large meeting rooms were grand and bedecked with inscrutable symbols, books and chairs signifying rank of some sort. The women’s meeting room is the largest and includes a balcony. They call themselves the “Eastern Star” and graciously allowed me to take pictures. They made it clear that had the Bible been open when I visited I should not have been allowed to take these photographs.
Central Hallway, Second Floor, Masonic Temple
So, I found friendly people, some elements of architectural beauty and others of architectural abomination. Still, I sensed an understated desperation. They openly acknowledged that the organization has dwindled, as I recall, from around 200,000 in Tennessee to around 40,000 with probably far fewer who are active. Their grand meeting halls, once full are now much less so. I think they fear something they value is nearing extinction and they keenly feel the loss.
One seemingly intact room (though graced with red tile)
Book Cases and Fireplace, Masonic Temple, Knoxville
Masonic Temple Today, Locust Street, Knoxville, October 2011
According to an article on WBIR from which I refreshed my memory on the facts and dates for this story, McClung Collection Director Steve Cotham says the original home is intact beneath the current building. I spoke to J.C. Wolfenbarger who is also quoted in that article and who joined the Masons at that lodge in 1949. He talked as if it had been altered very little, yet the sheer front of the building, only broken by the columns, resembles very little the 1915 newspaper photograph they have framed on the wall. It shows an elegant architectural structure with many multi-faceted lines.
Charles McGhee Home, Knoxville, 1915
I wish them well and appreciate their hospitality. It is a very interesting building and I would recommend a tour. Perhaps as it becomes too big to suit their needs they might consider selling it to Knox Heritage for $25,000. Maybe it isn’t too late to liberate the lost home inside the towering lodge.
One final, fun note: Mr. Wolfenbarger also confirmed what I’d heard mentioned before, that Kendrick Place, when it was known as Masonic Court, was filled with women offering their services to men for a price. He said that was what he found when he arrived at the lodge in 1949. I asked him how long that had been the case and mentioned that Christopher Kendrick bought it in 1982. He said, “that sounds about right.” I suggested that surely there would have been no Masonic customers, but he averred, “Masons are human, too.”