Historic Masonic Temple will no longer hold Masons
The sturdy red brick building at the corner of Center and Main streets was built by Batavia's Masons in 1908 and has been their home ever since.
That will change this summer.
Members of Batavia Lodge No. 475 of Free and Accepted Masons have made the difficult decision to leave their finely crafted and ornate temple to merge with the Olive Branch Lodge in Le Roy.
Jim Rosenbeck, master of the 151-year-old lodge, explained that since the Batavia Masons' lease expires this year, they are working on a merger with Le Roy to hopefully, "...get greater strength in numbers and get a higher profile for Masonry by merging and doing collaborative things."
In the process the lodge -- formed on April 9, 1859 -- will be dissolved.
The move is necessary because it's not financially viable for the 50-member lodge to pay rent. The lodge has occupied the building rent free for at least 15 years.
Rosenbeck said he wished nothing but the best for the Masonic Temple building and hoped that owner David Howe could find the right tenant to take care of it in the future.
Howe, who also owns Charles Men's Shop, acquired the building 15 years ago.
He gave The Batavian a tour of it earlier this week.
I was most impressed with the look of the "Lodge Room." Walking through the double doors and into the great hall, a view of throne-like chairs at the opposite side gave an almost humbling feeling. History seems to ooze out of the cracks of the walls in that place.
Theater seats line the sides of the great hall and a balcony that once held a pipe organ overlooks the room. The carpet is a fittingly ornate pattern and one of the earliest of "dimmers" can be found hulking underneath the light switches. When the giant crank is turned, the lights soften to a haunting glow.
"I love the history of this building and anything historic -- anything that is bigger than life," Howe said during our tour.
From the beginning, the Masons rented the first floor of the building to retail businesses and the second floor has always contained rented office space -- mostly used by attorneys until a few years ago.
The third and fourth floors have been shared by the Masons and Blue Pearl Yoga.
What happens next, Howe isn't quite sure.
He guessed that a theater group could work well, and apartments are possible, but improvements will be needed with either scenario.
At the time Howe acquired the building, the roof was in bad shape and a portion of the southeast corner of the building collapsed down to the basement. That's all been fixed, but other repairs are yet to be made.
As for the Masons, making tough choices to ensure their survival certainly isn't a new thing. The Le Roy Masons sold their lodge to make way for a Walgreens a few years ago, and after months of searching, decided to make 12 Bank St. in the village their new gathering place.
Historically, the Masons have found ways to keep their society thriving despite hardships. Former Holland Land Office Museum Director Patrick Weissand tells an interesting tale of William Morgan -- who learned the Masons' secrets but wasn't allowed to remain part of the lodge because he had a tendency to "shoot off his mouth" after drinking too much.
Although no one can prove exactly what happened to Morgan -- historians do know he was kidnapped and silenced after threatening to publish a book about the rituals of the freemasons. Weissand tells the riveting tale in a three-part video series here.
Although the Masons may have been a secretive society with an alleged political agenda in the past, Rosenbeck says that isn't what being a Mason is about.
"Basically, we are a benevolent organization that makes good men better," he said. "One of our goals is to provide services to the community that we're in and it's been sort of an issue with us lately because we have so few active members to do anything meaningful."
A good portion of the Batavia lodge treasury will be donated to local charitable groups, once the lodge disbands, Rosenbeck said. The rest will go to the Le Roy lodge, probably to help with construction of a kitchen there.
Rosenbeck says they do their best to donate to worthy causes. He pointed out that in order to be a Mason, one criteria is the belief in a Supreme Being.
"It's unique that the brotherhood of Masonry doesn't discriminate between religions. Christianity, Catholics, Muslims and Jewish beliefs and a few others can become Masons.
Rosenbeck said he regrets having to leave "the glorious old building" but it was a choice made out of necessity.
"Our decision to merge and join Le Roy has nothing to do with our feelings towards David Howe or the lodge building. We are going to really miss the beautiful place but this is something we need to do for our survival."
The permanent fixtures of the building -- such as distinctive door handles and the carved wood of the temple -- stay with the building. But the Batavia lodge owns all of the furniture -- such as the palace-like chairs in the temple and the two couches in the hallway -- and those will be taken to Le Roy.
Photos by Howard Owens. Top, interior of the Masonic Temple. First inset, Jim Rosenbeck and his son Mike Rosenbeck. Mike is the last member of Lodge No. 475 to complete his Third Degree and sign the charter. Other insets, details from inside the building. Postcards provided by Dave Howe.