History's headlines: Allentown's 86-year-old Masonic Temple casts imposing presence
As they cross Linden Street at Fulton, visitors to Allentown’s venerable West Park can’t help but notice the Allentown Masonic Temple. With its exterior walls of Indiana limestone, the six story structure is nothing if not imposing. Its elegant Corinthian columns and classical facade echo ancient Greece and Rome. Added to that is solidity of a cubed block of stone.
Few people have reason to enter the temple except for its members, guests and those tenants who rent out its office space, and that was undoubtedly what its builders assumed would be the case. The Masons, an ancient fraternal organization that has counted among its ranks the leaders of the county going back to George Washington, did not design the building in 1926 to be on general public view.
But in recent times the veil has been lifted over some of the mystery. Industrialist, philanthropist and long-time Mason Charles “Chuck” Canning, whose family roots in the community are deep, has encouraged and led public tours of the temple. Canning has filled a number of roles in both local and state Masonic bodies. In 1983 he served as Right Eminent Grand Commander of the Grand Commandery Knights Templar of Pennsylvania.
Canning is also director of the Harry C. Trexler Masonic Library. Located in the temple, the collection contains many rare works on the history of the Masonic order- some of them going back to the early 18th century. In 2004, Canning wrote a book called “General Trexler’s Masonic Legacy,” which details Trexler's role both as a Mason and in the construction of the temple.
Allentown’s ties to the Masons go back to before the city’s founding. On June 26, 1732, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Gazette reported in the doings about the city an event recently hosted by merchant and city councilman, William Allen.
“Saturday last being St. John’s Day,” it read, “a Grand Lodge of the Ancient and honorable society of Free and accepted Masons, was held at the Sun Tavern on Water Street, when after a handsome entertainment the worshipful William Allen, Esquire was unanimously chosen Grand Master of this Province for the year ensuing.” Water Street was also the location of Allen’s counting house. In 1750 Allen was appointed Provincial Grand Master of the Province by the Grand Master of England.
Despite these Masonic links, according to Canning, Allentown did not get its own Masonic lodge until 1817 when the Jordan Lodge 151 was organized. Its first home was George Savitz’s “Compass and Square” tavern at 7tth and Hamilton St. These meetings probably took place in the upstairs meeting rooms that were used from 1812 to 1814 for sessions of the first Lehigh County Court.
The Jordan Lodge was dissolved in 1836 and it was not until 1859 that Barger Lodge 333 was created. On into the early 20th century the local Masons met at a number of places along Hamilton Street. By 1903 the city’s rapidly growing Masonic community was holding meetings at 8th and Hamilton. Among those members was Trexler, who had joined the Masons in 1877.
By 1911 it was clear Allentown Masons needed a home of their own. But things moved slowly until they decided to invite former president William Howard Taft to the city for a kickoff fund raiser.
Taft was not politically popular in Lehigh County. He had come in third with 2,722 votes in the 1912 election behind both the victor, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and his former mentor, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, who ran on the Progressive Party ticket. Still, Taft was widely respected as a fair man with a sense of justice. In 1915 he returned to Lehigh County to help dedicate Allentown Hospital’s School of Nursing.
On December 16, 1913, in one of his first public appearances after losing the White House, Taft spoke to an overflow crowd at Mealey’s Auditorium, a large dance hall located where Allentown’s City Hall is today. Although Taft had only recently become a Mason, and his talk featured mostly politics, it generated just the sort of headlines the campaign needed.
Unfortunately World War I began shortly thereafter, halting much civilian construction. It was not until 1918 that a Masonic Temple Association was established to begin planning the building and not until May of 1919 that a revived fundraising campaign began.
This time General Trexler was in charge, and in Allentown in the 1920s that made all the difference. At a meeting at his Springhouse country home, a decision was made to build the temple at its current location. Members of the building committee, headed by Trexler, were quickly dispatched to many of the state’s Masonic lodges to gather ideas.
After much thought, architect Richard G. Schmid of Chicago, who had built a number of Masonic structures in the Midwest, was selected.
Working with him as interior decorator was Gustav A. Brand. Sent to America by the German government to paint murals for that countries pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, he stayed in America and became a leading decorator in the Windy City. It was Brand’s task to design the elaborate ceremonial rooms required for the Allentown Temple.
Work on the Allentown Masonic Temple began in 1923 and was completed in 1926. On Sunday June 6, 1926, a full feature page with pictures was included in the Morning Call, noting the ornate décor and sumptuousness of the Renaissance Hall, the Chapter Hall and other spaces.
One group of Boston Masons, after a tour of the Allentown building, declared, "We have seen the last word in Masonic construction. You have everything here.” The following week crowds numbering in the thousands toured the building.
And what was new in 1926 is historic today. According to Channing, Allentown’s temple is one of the few Masonic buildings designed by Schmid still being used for its original purpose.
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