A plan for the future of the Masonic Temple

March 04, 1997|By Fred B. Shoken

THE GRAND AND imposing Masonic Temple in the 200 block of North Charles Street looks as if it should have been built in Paris, not Baltimore. With its marble walls, ornate decoration and huge mansard, the building presents a serious institutional look, obscured in mystery. I know of few who have actually entered the place and survived to tell of it, excluding those who have shopped in the music stores that flank the building's entrance.

The Masons have relocated to the valley, and the building is up for sale. Their loss is our gain; but what shall we do with this huge building primarily made up of ornately decorated meeting rooms?

The building should be renovated as the new home of the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center. The existing museum is tucked away in the Brokerage, after its former home on Charles Street suffered a fire.

Current plans are to tear down two mid-19th-century buildings at the corner of Franklin and Howard streets and build a new Eubie Blake Center along the future ''Avenue of the Arts.''

Preservationists have questioned the wisdom of such a plan, when vacant lots predominate along this portion of Howard Street. Too, the Eubie Blake Center has yet to obtain the financial resources needed to make this plan work. Why bother with constructing anew, when an existing building in a prestigious location is made to order?

10 meeting rooms

Basically, the Eubie Blake Center needs several small and large rooms for exhibits, talks, performances and audio-visual presentations. The Masonic Temple houses 10 major meeting rooms decorated in a variety of architectural styles, which were used for various Masonic rituals. These rooms could be converted into gallery spaces, lecture halls, performance auditoriums and audio-visual centers.

The building also has two large kitchens, banquet and reception halls. This is crucial to the success of the center, because everyone knows that benefactors join museums for the parties at exhibit openings, rather than to look at art.

One way to renovate the building is to provide access from the back. With the building comes a rear parking lot that can be entered from St. Paul Place, next to the Tremont Plaza Hotel. A clever architect could design a garage structure on the parking lot to meet the parking needs of the center, as well as turn St. Paul Place into the main access for the building.

Visitors would enter from a ground-level lobby and reception area in the garage. An elevator would take them past the parking levels to the top of the garage, where a bridge would lead directly into the Masonic Temple. A permanent exhibit on Eubie Blake would be housed on the bridge.

A plan for surplus space

The huge Masonic Temple might be too large for the Eubie Blake Center, but I have a plan to resolve the surplus-space issue. The bridge from the garage would also be connected to the Tremont Plaza Hotel.

Surplus meeting rooms of the Masonic Temple could be leased to the hotel as meeting and banquet facilities, providing the hotel with a unique conference center competitive with Inner Harbor hotels. Currently, space limitations restrict the hotel to smaller-scale conferences and dinners. Leasing surplus space to the Tremont could help the Eubie Blake Center pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the facility.

These rooms also could be leased to other Masonic groups in town, or could provide reception facilities for nearby downtown churches that lack banquet facilities for wedding receptions or other celebrations. The Eubie Blake Center could expand into these surplus rooms as it grows in the future.

Marrying the Eubie Blake National Museum and Cultural Center with the Masonic Temple could solve two problems: How to use a vacant downtown building and where to relocate an important cultural institution.

Perhaps Laurie Schwartz, director of the Downtown Partnership (located right next to the Masonic Temple), could be the matchmaker brokering this perfect match.

Fred B. Shoken is writing a series of occasional articles examining vacant and under-utilized buildings or lots in Baltimore and suggesting how they might be redeveloped.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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