Quite a bit. The historic downtown building, at 21 N. Front St., was built in 1899 on the site of the old First National Bank building (which was torn down in January 1899 to make way for it). An alliance of local Masonic bodies had been planning the project for nearly two years.
Charles McMillen of Duluth, Minn., was hired by the Masons as architect. (He was apparently a specialist, having designed at least 14 other Masonic buildings.) McMillen traveled to Wilmington personally with his family to supervise the project and apparently liked it; he later opened an office here. D. Gaetz of Knoxville, Tenn., was the contractor; B.F. Mills was hired to do the stonework — including, apparently, the elaborate stone pillars and the Masonic inscriptions around the main Front Street entrance.
The cornerstone was laid on May 13, 1899, with fall Masonic ceremony. As the Wilmington Messenger described it, “wine and oil (were) poured over the (cornerstone) from silver chalices.” The building was open on Nov. 12, 1899. Executed in what architectural historian Tony Wrenn calls “Richardsonian Romanesque,” the resulting building was routinely described in the local papers as “magnificent.” When President William Howard Taft visited Wilmington on Nov. 9, 1909, the banquet in his honor was thrown at the Masonic Hall.
The first floor was designed to be the moneymaker, holding shops. The first three tenants were H.L. Fennel’s harness shop, Fishblate’s clothing store and James C. Mund’s drugstore. (Mund was a ranking Masonic officer.) Fishblate’s was replaced in 1903 by J.M. Solky & Co., another clothier. In 1906, Mund’s gave way to S.H. Kress’s five-and-dime store, which was expensively renovated in 1907 and became a longtime tenant.
The upper floors were occupied for many years by a mixture of commercial offices and Masonic lodges and ceremonial halls. At first, the offices were on the second floor; the Masonic Blue Lodge and the Consistory and Chapter of the York Rite bodies were on the third floor, while a banquet hall — presumably where President Taft ate and addressed his hosts — was on the fourth.
The fifth floor was at first reserved for a tea garden, where presumably guests enjoyed the view. By 1909, however, the Masons evicted the tea garden, perhaps (as a centennial article in Encore noted) because “all the drinking and dancing exceeded the bounds of good taste.” Around 1914, the Masons installed a 200-seat theater on the fifth floor where the rituals of Scottish Rite degrees were enacted.
In later years, according to some sources, the York Rite moved to the second floor, while the Scottish Rite occupied the third and fourth. As late as the 1970s, according to the Wilmington City Directory, the upper floors of the Masonic Temple housed no less than 16 different Masonic bodies, as well as a smattering of commercial firms and the Goldenrod Assembly of the Rainbow Girls.
In 1981, however, the local Scottish Rite bodies moved to a new Temple building on South 17th Street, and the Masonic Temple, now in private hands, entered a period of decline. In 1982, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers occupied the second floor (as well as much of adjoining buildings) for awhile but then moved out in 1988 to new facilities at Market and Darlington streets. The Buy-Rite Discount Store, a downtown landmark, closed and moved out of the first floor in 1985.
Then in 1992, actor Dennis Hopper — who was in town shooting the film “Super Mario Bros.” — discovered the Masonic Temple while looking for a place to store his artwork. Hopper bought the building for a reported $150,000 and embarked on a major restoration project with architect John Parker. The fourth-floor banquet hall was used for a ballroom scene in the movie “Road to Wellville.”
Hopper fixed himself a comfortable apartment in the back of the building (where Sandra Bullock later stayed while filming “28 Days” locally) and announced plans for an ambitious arts academy to be housed there. These plans were scuttled in 1994, however, when a hoped-for state grant did not go through.
In 1999, Ocean Isle Beach developer John Sutton brought the building from Hopper, who retained his apartment in the back. (In 2011, local artists and filmmakers mounted a 25th anniversary “Blue Velvet” exhibit in Hopper’s apartment during the Cucalorus Film Festival. The actor died in 2010 at age 74.)
Sutton further renovated the building; many of the old offices became apartments. A major focus was the fifth floor theater, refitted for 220 seats, which became home for the short-lived Cape Fear Theatre Co.
Soon afterward, however, the newly rechristened City Stage became home to the City Stage troupe and Carolina Theatre Group LLC. The revived theater played host to productions ranging from “The Rocky Horror Show” to “Romeo and Juliet” along with an annual restaging of David Sedaris’ “The SantaLand Diaries.” It also served as a venue for the Cucalorus Film Festival and Other Events.
Along with City Stage came Level 5, a bar with an outstanding river view. Downstairs, on the first floor, Port City Java opened its flagship downtown coffee shop in late 1999.
You can find pictures of the Masonic Temple building through the years in the digital archives of the New Hanover County Public Library. Just search for “Masonic Temple.”
Date posted: February 15, 2013
User-contributed question by:
Mary Ann Crump