Mystery Unveiled

For decades, Baltimore's Masonic Temple was closed to all but a few. Now, hotelier Chris Smith opens the doors of this exotic building.

November 27, 2005|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

CHRIS SMITH STILL REMEMbers the first time he toured Baltimore's Masonic Temple.

It was 25 years ago and, as the new owner of a nearby apartment and office tower that he was converting to a hotel, he was invited to explore the mysterious palace built for the secret rites and ceremonies of Maryland's Freemasons.

He marveled at the lavish Corinthian Room, with its coffered ceiling and marble balustrades; the ornate Oriental Room, with its geometric decorations and ogee-shaped windows; and the intimate Chapel, with its religious mural and medallions -- all exquisitely crafted, all reserved for members and guests of the intensely private fraternal organization.

Smith never forgot the architectural treasures he saw that day. And years later, when others were thinking about demolishing the building to make way for a parking garage, he had other ideas.

In 1998, Smith bought the temple from the Masons, who had opened a Grand Lodge in Hunt Valley two years before. Since then, the hotelier has been working to update and restore the downtown property as part of an extraordinary project whose $14 million price tag makes it the most expensive privately funded restoration of a historic building ever completed in Maryland.

His goal has been to transform the Masons' meeting hall to a spectacular space in which to hold meetings, conferences and weddings -- while preserving its grandeur. Called The Tremont Grand, the five-story, 90,000-square-foot conference and banquet facility at 221-227 N. Charles St., will be operated as an extension of Smith's nearby Tremont Plaza Hotel, to which it's attached by a pedestrian bridge.

By completing the project, Smith is both preserving a key piece of Maryland history and lifting the veil of mystery that has enshrouded it for more than a century. In recent weeks, a few events and parties have been held in the building. Early next year, the Tremont Grand will hold a formal dedication ceremony to signal that the construction phase is over and the entire building is officially available for use by the general public for the first time in its 140-year history.

"This place should not be dark," Smith said as he stood near the building's Charles Street entrance, which had been closed for years. "It ought to be filled with activity. It's one of the crown jewels of Baltimore's heritage, and now it's going to be open to the public in all its glory."

Working closely with the architectural firm of Murphy & Dittenhafer and others, Smith's company restored a dozen major meeting rooms in the temple, while adding features such as a freight elevator and a large commercial kitchen.

"Our directive to the architects was: Don't move a wall," Smith said. "Work with it just as it was built. We wanted to keep the original character of this building."

That meant threading in new mechanical systems and technology without changing the look of the interiors, said Brad Fennell, a senior vice president of the Smith company. "It was like a surgeon trying to go in and disrupt as little as possible while successfully completing the surgery."

Grand lodge

Built beginning in 1866 and expanded after fires in 1890 and 1908, the Grand Lodge of Maryland Masonic Temple has long been considered one of the city's architectural wonders, representing the work of noted architects Edmund Lind, Charles Carson and Joseph Evans Sperry. But unlike publicly owned landmarks such as City Hall, the Masonic Temple was less known by the general public because many non-Masons never had a chance to step inside.

The Maryland Freemasons trace their history to the stonecutters' guilds of the Middle Ages. Today, members come from many walks of life, in a spirit of community service. Although they had other meeting sites around town, the Masons traditionally used the Charles Street temple for their most important events and rites. Its lavish rooms were expressions of their builders' skills in everything from stone carving and plasterwork to painting and glassmaking.

Some of the rooms are small and simple. Others are grand and opulent. Walking from one to the next is like taking a survey in world architecture, with spaces that might be found in Egypt, Rome or the Middle East. Visitors have no way of knowing what period or style they'll encounter next.

On the fifth level, one large hall features a wall of mirrors, evoking the palace at Versailles. Next to it is a Tudor-Gothic chamber modeled after Edinburgh's Roslyn Chapel. Many of the rooms are named after the style of column they contain -- Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. In a sense, the building is Baltimore's precursor to the themed architecture of Las Vegas, except that these spaces were designed without a hint of whimsy, and built with only the finest materials and craftsmanship.

Hippodrome parallels

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