Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lost Building of the Week-- September 21st

New Masonic Hall

721 Chestnut Street

Holy Shit!
                      This building was a gem. A diamond among diamonds. We'll never get another one like this again. If this was built today, it would be a plastic-looking pile of shit with asymmetrical uneven windows and colored boxes everywhere. This is from a time when architects knew what the fuck was up.
                      In the 1830's and 1840's, Freemasonry was in the shitter. Membership was at an all time low and even the bigwigs of the organization were starting to call it quits. The general public was down on them because of a few bad incidents and members were being arrested and interrogated in some cities to reveal the brotherhood's secrets. Philadelphia's Masonic Hall wasn't even being used. The building was serving as the Peale Museum of Natural History and the Masons were meeting in an old mansion at 3rd and Walnut. 
                     By the early 1850's, everyone forgot about that shit and Freemasonry was cool again. To make up for all the lost time, the Philadelphia Masons decided they should build a new Masonic Hall, this time the largest in the goddamn world. They held a huge design contest, taking offers from the six most badass Philadelphia architects of the period.  
                      The design that was chosen ending up being the one drawn up by the 78-Star Admiral of Masonic Kick-ass, Samuel Sloan. His design was a 112-foot-tall high gothic mixed-use mega-hall that would take up more square footage than any other. Just look at that picture. Gothic arches, facade details all over, little towers everywhere... you can't argue with this motherfucker.

Hell yeah!
                         The cornerstone was laid in a gigantic ceremony/full-dress mega parade on November 21st, 1853 and it was completed in 1855. It was a huge success... Masonic membership became the "in" thing again for the mega-elite super-rich of the city. It was so fucking successful, in fact, that the building started to become insufficient for the Masons' needs.
                       Only 17 years after it was built, the Masons moved the fuck out of the "New Masonic Hall" and moved into the super-awesome gigantic mega temple that's still kicking ass and taking names at 1 North Broad Street. Once the Masons moved, the building went through a shitload of different uses. The retail storefronts stayed in use pretty continuously but the upper floors were often vacant.
                        It became the Chestnut Street Dime Museum (for five weeks in 1884), then it became the Temple Theatre and Egyptian Museum (alterations by Willis G. Hale!) in 1886 until it burned the fuck down a few months later on December 27th, 1886. Unfortunately, no pics seem to exist of the altered facade that was designed to make it look more Egyptian. If you find one, let me know!
                       The burning of the building was the cause of controversy all over America since it was suspected that its new-fangled electrical lighting scheme might have been the culprit. Once it was gone, the site only remained an empty lot for 3 years until Willis Hale's awesome Three Banks building was built on the spot in 1889. Rumor has it that parts of the foundation from the New Masonic Hall are still extant in the remaining standing section of that building, which I'll talk about at some point. This thing was cool. And the Gang.

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