June 06, 2017

Photo Essay: The Temple Abandoned by the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry (Updated for 2019)

[Last updated 12/7/19 7:49 PM PT: The Marciano Art Foundation has announced its permanent closure.]

After years in disuse, finally being sold in 2013, the former Wilshire Boulevard home of the Freemasons of the Scottish Rite Order has now transformed into the Marciano Art Foundation, a free contemporary art museum that's free and open to the public.

Its reopening should be a preservation victory.

After all, the building had languished for decades, hosting boxing matches and troops during the LA Riots, and then... nothing.

In fact, it had become darn near impossible to find anyone who could figure out what to do with it. For a long time, the temple was considered a "real estate white elephant."

Although built in 1961, it looks ancient—in fact, too ancient to be considered Mid-Century Modern and, in some ways, not Classical enough to be considered New Formalist.

And although its themes are biblical in nature—with its monumental 14-foot travertine figures of antiquity—it's not old enough to be anything more than a relic of mid-century LA that nobody knew what to do with.

Even the Marciano brothers had originally intended on adaptively reusing it as essentially a private storage space for their personal art collection of pieces from contemporary artists like Jeff Koons, Doug Aitken, Ed Rucha, Murakami, Cindy Sherman, and so on.

I should have been happy that it actually opened up to the public as a free contemporary art museum.

circa 2018

was excited to actually walk in, after having driven by so many times over the last six years—especially since access to its interior was almost always limited to members of the fraternal group when it was still a functioning masonic temple.

But, upon its renovation, this temple of temples designed by Millard Sheets (perhaps known better as a painter, muralist, and mosaicist than as an architect) has lost a lot of its ritualistic flair...

circa 2018

...starting with the epigrams that have disappeared from the west side facade.

The former front entrance on Wilshire Boulevard has been sealed off... guests no reason to visit or even notice the stunning, gold-glazed details embedded into the travertine walls...

...just one example of the signature touches that Sheets would incorporate into his monument.

But a lot of its occult flair that was once hidden from the outside world is now obscured from view (or altogether purged) even on the inside of the former masonic lodge.

Yes, there are original drinking fountains in their tiled niches, some of which still even work (though they appear to be melting).

But elsewhere, many other details appear to have been whitewashed...

...from the grand lobby and mezzanine level... the third-floor gallery.

The upper spaces have been dramatically transformed, both stripped down and built up—including the former dining room on the top floor, which could once seat as many as 1500 masons.

And one of Sheets's grand artistic contributions—a tremendous mosaic mural of ancient trees—has been preserved out of view.

A white wall was literally built in front of it. You have to walk around the wall to see it—and you have to know to walk around that wall.

And even if you do, the "chapel-like" environment created by the architecture firm responsible for the renovation  puts the visitor too close to the artwork to really see it, forcing you to look up at it as though sitting in the front row at an IMAX movie.

While some new walls were built, other parts of the building were hacked off...

...or nearly entirely enshrouded in secrecy, visible only to those "in the know."

The Marciano brothers apparently had no use for the original balconies that flanked the building; so, they had the west side one hacked off, and they had the east side one sealed off.

Sure, the Marcianos may have rescued the building from a far worse fate. After all, anyone who acquired it would have been limited by the neighborhood and zoning laws, in terms of how they could use the building. That, I guess, explains why they had the former 2000-seat theater, including its mosaics, irreversibly obliterated.

But that's hardly enough reason to be happy about the so-called "preservation-minded" renovation, as the building owners and the renovators were also liberated by a grievous lack of landmark status (though most likely any preservation protection wouldn't have saved the interior anyway).

So, who can you blame? The masons themselves?

When the temple went bankrupt in 1994 and they were forced to vacate...

...they didn't have any time to preserve their legacy (or their possessions).

What they left behind included everything from their theatrical productions, the rites and rituals that were characteristic of the Scottish Rite sect of freemasonry and were once performed in the now-destroyed theater.

With all this stuff on their hands, the Marciano brothers kept some of the paraphernalia and other ephemera on display... the former masons' library ("The Relic Room") on the mezzanine level...

...but they gave a lot of it—furniture, props, costumes, and even elaborately-painted theatrical backdrops—away to artists...

...and tasked them with figuring out a way to incorporate it all into their site-responsive installations.

Hence, Jim Shaw's temporary "Wig Museum" in the former theater space on the first floor...

...alongside some of the original backdrops on display, plus others that were later acquired from elsewhere...

...both repurposed and recontextualized.

The dalle de verre stained glass mosaic—of the Scottish Rite's symbolic two-headed eagle, in silhouette—remains in the library, but a large fresco designed by Sheets has been removed from the lobby. A painted mural by Sheets is tucked away in the museum's bookstore.

Though Millard Sheets was not himself a mason—nor even a Catholic—he's left behind an architectural and artistic legacy that inextricably links him to Freemasonry. And that includes a large mosaic (his largest at the time, up to 70 feet high and 20 feet wide) on the east side of the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, depicting the historical timeline of the great builders of temples, from Jerusalem circa 900 B.C. to California circa the 19th century A.D.

At the time, he called the 90,000 square-foot temple (which the masons of the Scottish Rite called a "cathedral") "one of the most exciting projects I ever had anything to do with." That may be because he was able to integrate art into his building plans from the very beginning, rather than slapping it on top of a finished building later on.

It makes you wonder why it's necessary to commission even more art to portray the history of the building, when so much of it was already there.

It makes you wonder what the point was of getting rid of any of Sheets's site-specific artwork within the building.

Is it just a matter of another day, another piece of LA history lost?

For pre-restoration photos, click here and especially here. For images of Millard Sheets's original designs for the masonic lodge, click here.

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