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By Nok-Noi Hauger, Of the NEWS Staff e-mail Nok-Noi
Last updated: Saturday, January 17, 2004

Masonic lodge had rich history
135-year-old building played public, private roles in Bangor

BANGOR - A 200-year-old lambskin charter for the area's first Masonic lodge was destroyed in the vast fire that consumed the downtown Masonic Hall - and so was a place where kids with dyslexia could stop by for free tutoring after school.For years, the building at 116 Main St. has served both private and public roles, housing retail space and serving as a meeting place for the city's Masonic lodges and related organizations.

Loss of the almost 135-year-old landmark means loss of a portion of the city's rich history, but Royce Wheeler, a former lodge master for the Masons, remained undaunted Friday.

"Just like the phoenix, the Masons will be reborn from the ashes," he said.

The building caught fire Thursday evening and continued to burn well into Friday. By Friday afternoon, the Bangor Fire Department had decided to tear down what was left of the structure to ensure safety.

The building's masonry shell was finished in 1868, when Bangor was still riding high as the self-proclaimed lumber capital of the world. The rest of the structure was completed the following year, and additions were made over the years.

Many of the subcontractors as well as the man who designed the building's exterior were Masons themselves, according to an architectural history of the city written by Deborah Thompson of Bangor.

The building was the first self-contained block built for a fraternal organization in the city, she said.

"It's a terrible loss because it has so much history," Thompson said Friday. "It's really an important building."

The long triple-sash third-story windows were in rooms with 20-foot ceilings. In its day, the building had frescoed rooms and Brussels carpets.

Bangor's historic downtown is a "fragile stretch of buildings" and any building that is lost is a tremendous injury to the community, she said. "It will really change the look of downtown. The roof of the building [could be] seen for miles."

John Tripp, past most illustrious grand master for the Grand Council of the State of Maine and past district deputy grand master, said some of the Masons' costumes were 100 years old. He said the lodges lost records, too.

The ornamental garments play a role in the lodge's ceremonies.

"The degrees of the York Rite and Scottish Rite are usually portrayed in costumes from the era of King Solomon's Temple," Wheeler said. "They were very ornate robes and headgear as you might see in biblical pictures."

Tripp said the lambskin charter that was lost had been displayed in the front foyer. It was the original charter for the Rising Virtue Lodge No. 10, which is more than 200 years old. It was chartered in Hampden before Bangor was even a city, Wheeler said.

Tripp said the building also housed items believed to be from the shop of American Revolution icon Paul Revere and historic paintings, including one of George Washington. He said the lambskin charter had also survived a 1976 downtown flood.

"We have two problems ahead of us," said Wheeler, who is a past master of the St. Andrew's Lodge and Scottish Rite leader. "We have a short-term problem and a long-term problem.

"In the short term, we need to address what we're going to do for meeting places and what we're going to do with our learning center," Wheeler said.

For the past eight years, the Masons have run the Masonic Learning Center for Children in the building.

"We offer free tutoring for children with dyslexia," said Wheeler, who is also a former chairman of the learning center's board. "We have tutored probably in excess of 100 different students there, and we have 48 students presently enrolled. These students come in after school for an hour or so, two days a week."

A longer-term goal for the Masons will include finding a replacement for the burned building.

"That needs to be well designed and thought out," Wheeler said. "I'm certain down the road we'll have another Masonic lodge in Bangor. I'm also certain it probably will not be at that location on Main Street."

Wheeler said costs associated with rebuilding in the historic downtown district and the size of the downtown location would be factors that the Masons' leadership will take into consideration when deciding whether to rebuild.

The Bangor building also housed a chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, for the wives and daughters of Masons, along with two youth orders, the Order of DeMolay for boys and the Order of Rainbow for girls.

"We had a lot of furniture that was antique and they were of fine craftsmanship," Wheeler said. "In the main lodge room, the chairs had engraved into the woodwork the badge of the stations. The master chair had a square, and then [the] next officer [had] a compass and the next had a plumb, the three basic tools used by Masons."

If the Masons don't rebuild at the site, Thompson thinks a park may be constructed there.

"It's not a very large site, so it might end up as a park," she said. "It's a bad thing when the current density gets reduced."

The building is not registered under the National Register of Historic Places  but was listed as part of the Main Street Historic District created in February 1990 by the City Council.

Masons have been in Maine for two centuries. The first lodge formed in the area in 1762. Today, there are 54 chapters.

Wheeler said two Blue Lodges are in Bangor. The Rising Virtue Lodge and St. Andrews No. 83, chartered in 1856.

"We'll be celebrating 150 years in two more years," Wheeler said.

Three bodies of what Masons call the York Right also were based in the building: the Mount Mariah Royal Arch, the Bangor Council and the St. John Commandery. The Scottish Rite in Bangor also has several core groups: the Lodge of Perfection, the Council, the Princes of Jerusalem and the Bangor Chapter of Rose Croix.

"Our endeavor is to build character in men," said Wheeler. "We take good men and make them better."

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