No quick fix for Masons' temple deal City building stripped

buyer Peter Angelos obtains court order

October 21, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

On April Fool's Day, the secretive fraternal organization known as the Masons signed a contract with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos to sell him the Masonic Temple, an architectural treasure on North Charles Street, for $2.2 million.

About 80 days later, with the deal not yet closed, the Masons welcomed members and antiques dealers into the resplendent old lodge for something akin to a glorified attic sale. In room after room of the seven-story building, yellow price tags were taped to doorways and bookcases, stating prices for those items as well as for chandeliers, wall sconces, ceiling fans, display cases and custom-built benches, some made by Tiffany's.

By day's end, according to some who were present, the Masons had hauled in $30,000 to $40,000, literally tearing the items from walls and ceilings where they'd been since early in the century. Left in their place were expanses of exposed brick, broken plaster and bare light bulbs dangling from long wires.

Most of the items went to antiques dealers, who have since re-sold some to other dealers for more than double the purchase price. Those dealers have in turn sold the items again at further markup. One Atlanta auctioneer is advertising the Tiffany benches for $10,000 to $20,000, meaning they could sell for more than 10 times the price paid to the Masons.

As a result, according to court papers and sources close to the case, Angelos is fuming, the sale is in limbo, some of the antique sellers have had further dealings frozen by a court order, and the Masons are scrambling to recover the items or find some easier, cheaper way out of the mess.

None of the parties directly involved will talk publicly about the matter, which is now before Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes.

But city preservationists are aghast at the extent of the damage to one of downtown's architectural landmarks.

"These are not things you can call Hechinger's and order," said Elise Butler, programs director for Preservation Maryland. "To remove these architectural features is to take a unique space and make it very utilitarian. It really damages the interior dramatically."

Wayne R. Gioioso Jr., president of Mid-Atlantic Properties Inc., the firm representing Angelos in the deal, would not comment on the dispute, nor would his firm's attorney in the case, David Freishtat.

Leonard Cohen, the attorney for the Masons, also would not comment, and the Mason's Grand Master John Naquin did not return repeated phone calls placed since early last week.

Restraining order request

But an affidavit from Gioioso filed in support of Mid-Atlantic's Sept. 26 request for a restraining order, which prevents further sales or resales of items from the building, argued that, "The presence of these Fixtures at the Property, and the value of the Fixtures, was a specific consideration of Mid-Atlantic in its decision to purchase the property."

Built in 1869, the Masonic Temple has long been considered one of Charles Street's architectural jewels. Restored after fires in 1890 and 1908, the building at 223-225 N. Charles St. contains 10 large meeting rooms, each in a different style. Used for Masonic rituals, they include a "Roman Room" with a marble floor and coffered ceiling, a Tudor Gothic room modeled on Edinburgh's Roslyn Chapel and a hall that recalls an Egyptian temple.

It was a meeting hall for Masons until 1994, when lodge members opened an "activities building" in Cockeysville. They put the building up for sale in 1995, along with its 115-space parking lot, at an asking price of $2.9 million.

Angelos was an early bidder, but he was superseded by Allright Baltimore Inc., one of the area's largest parking lot operators, when that company purchased a legal option to buy. Allright still held its option when the Masons and Angelos signed their sale contract on April 1, and not until mid-September did Allright decide not to exercise its option.

Shocked at 'attic sale'

With the way then cleared for the deal, Angelos' people re-entered the building. They were shocked to find the results of the "attic sale."

That spring, the Masons had sent out a notice to members and some antiques dealers of the pending sale, scheduled for 8 a.m. June 23. The notice had upset some members, who tried to stop the sale. So did Preservation Maryland.

"We wrote to the Grand Master, John Naquin, and we pretty much pleaded with him to not take things for sale out of the building, because first off it would make the building much more difficult to sale and market, and also because you would have irretrievable damage to the building," Butler said.

But the sale went on, and antiques dealers found bargains galore.

Joe Frank, who owns the Fells Point shop Another Period in Time, bought a long list of items he values at $124,250, more than three times the total sales made by the Masons that day.

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