Welcome back intrepid readers to our first post of 2016. We are happy to see you (virtually) and happy to be back blogging.
A special thanks to all who came out on January 30 for our presentation at the Elgin Literary Festival! A truly humbling and rewarding experience. We came. We saw. We presented. We didn’t dry-heave on stage.
In this post we are researching the Elgin Masonic Temple.
Built by Charles Giertz and his son, it was designed by architect Ralph Abell who carries an architectural legacy through a few other well known Elgin homes and buildings. Firstly, he is the son of well known Elgin architect W. W. Abell, himself known for Elgin architectural gems and featured in other posts on this very blog. But Ralph is known for other reasons, too. For instance, the Gifford Park Association has featured 223 North Worth Avenue on its annual walking tour. This particular home he built for himself and his family while others, like the old Crocker Theater built in 1923, were for the public. Once the biggest theater in Elgin, it sat downtown on Grove Avenue until it was decommissioned in 1981 and razed in 2005.
Abele’s Masonic Temple was no small feat, however. Sharing some of the Classical stylistic subtleties as the Crocker Theater — most notably in the pilasters (flat column protruding from a wall) — upon its completion in 1926 some sources have noted that the Temple was the largest indoor meeting place in Elgin, boasting enough interior space for everything from concerts to local Elgin High School graduations.
310 E. Chicago Street’s facade faces south and sits on the north east corner of Geneva and Chicago Streets. Standing at four stories tall and characterized by cream colored brick, it saw few alterations between when it was first built and the 1950s, when an elevator was added.
As is the case so many buildings, this 310 E. Chicago Street does not easily fit within the paradigm of a single building style. With its most dominating features of the Neoclassical type, I would be remiss to otherwise not include that it incorporates many aspects of the Beaux Arts, as well.
Where we see Neoclassical elements:
- centered front gable
- facade symmetrical
- centered doorway
- pedimented gable
Where the Beaux Arts come in:
- wall surfaces with decorative garlands, floral patterns or shields
Where they meet in the middle:
Pilasters are essentially rectangular flat columns that only slightly project from a wall. Strictly Neoclassical styles almost certainly see columns or colonnades — a series of columns in a straight line, usually evenly spaced — on the facade highlighting the entry porch. In the case of the Elgin Masonic Temple, we can a sort of colonnade of pilasters as there are four going across the facade, two on either side of the door. While pilasters are more common among the Beaux Arts style, this is a point in which the two styles meet here at 310 E. Chicago since this is not a high style Neoclassical and simultaneously does not adhere to all the other point of Beaux Arts. Seen above with Ionic capitals (the top design feature of the column itself), other Neoclassical and Beaux Arts styles will see Ionic or Corinthian capitals.
Typically, Neoclassical entrances are much more elaborate but the front doorway of this building is obviously a newer addition, not dating to the original build date. In older photographs found while researching, the actual front doors are obscured or the current doorway is already in place. That said, a cool fact from Virginia McAlester, “[h]ouses with a broken pediment at the entrance or above a window and two-story columns are always Neoclassical; houses with an unbroken pediment at the entrance and two-story columns are usually Neoclassical (a few Greek Revival originals have unbroken triangular pediments).”
310 E. Chicago Street also exhibits Neoclassical elements by carrying distinguishing features which separate it from its Early Classical and Greek Revival lookalikes. Namely, the side and wing porch. Let us examine the below:
Protruding from the east elevation, I realize this is not quite a porch, however it is a separate entryway from the front of the building, and retains a similar aesthetic touch particularly in the ornamentation.
Where to begin?? There is so much cool history within these walls.
The inspiration to do this particular building came from a good friend of mine who attended the Dance Theatre of Elgin, whose home was within these walls. Recently, she shared with me that, “the Dance Theatre of Elgin was a huge part of my childhood. Between 2nd and 8th grade I spent almost every week night there after school until 7-8pm. I have the best memories of being there. It was like a pop-up gymnastics center. Every weekend we would tear down the equipment and store it in the back room so another group could have church on Sundays. Linda and the teachers would be right back in there the next week setting up the equipment – everything from mirrors to rod floors to a huge trampoline we would use for tumbling class on the stage.” She continued to share that she distinctly remembered that “if you didn’t take ballet you couldn’t join the tumbling team.”
Similar to me, after 1991 the Masonic Temple of Elgin has seen many other lives from just the dance theater. While I spent my youth jumping around from basketball to skateboarding to glow sticking (yes, even once at a middle school dance) and Counter-Strike, the Masonic Temple stayed in touch with much more refined definitions, with the aforementioned dance theater connection, as well a series of religiously affiliated groups inhabiting the space in the years since early 1990s until now.
According to the Elgin Masons website, the first opening of the Masonic Temple was a widely attended event:
“The cornerstone laying was a big event. A parade with an “order of units and line of march” was led by Elgin Mayor Joseph Caughy who was also designated the parade’s grand marshal. Delegations from neighboring communities’ Masonic lodges were on hand, as were Masons from all over northern Illinois…with the local Order of the Eastern Star joining the Aurora Municipal Band, Elgin Watch Company Employee Band, LaGrange Masonic Orphan Home Children’s Band, the Order of the Builders of Boys, and members of the blue lodge Master Masons who were ‘urgently requested’ to assemble at High School Park for the parade ‘with your lamb skin apron if possible.'”
Can’t tell you how many times that exact situation has happened to me. History is crazy.
But I want to also discuss the larger historical context of the building for a moment for it is one my favorite parts of historic preservation. By looking over past building styles, there is always a temperament, a context, a methodology, a whatever you-want-to-call-it trend in history that affected the how and why of particular building styles and their popularity.
The Beaux Arts and Neoclassical styles have a (sort-of) Chicago connection. Both styles shared roughly the same period of popularity with Neoclassicism ranging from 1895-1955 and Beaux Arts from 1885-1930.
As McAlester writes in A Field Guide to American Houses about American’s new fascination with these eclectic building types and subtypes, it “…began quietly in the last decades f the 19th century as fashionable, European-trained architects designed landmark houses for wealthy clients in historic styles…a trend that gained momentum with the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, which stressed historical styles.”
If you have ever seen pictures of the 1893 World’s Fair, it completely transformed Chicago. While much of it is gone today, so many of the buildings erected were stunning homages to classical buildings of history. Colonnaded structures abound. And it is in this, this deeper American connection to world history in a way not seen as much before — since many American’s did not see or hear of stories from other parts of the globe as easily then — in the Elgin Masonic Temple. While the colonnades on 310 E. Chicago are pilasters rather than columns and the ornamentation does not match that of Columbian Exposition high-styled structures, this building stands as a testament in history not only in its own right but also as a piece of evidence for fervor that once was for monumental commercial and public buildings in the decades following the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. Given Elgin’s proximity to Chicago, there is no doubt that World’s Fair held an especially important place in many Elginites’ hearts.
what is it today?:
While other Christian institutions had made 310 E. Chicago Street their home after the Mason’s moved out in the 1990s, in the mid-2000s one group chose to take down the round symbol of the Masons located in the center of the facade gable pediment. This move, later denied by Elgin’s Design Review Subcommittee, came under heavy criticism of some preservationists throughout the city. While the decision to take the symbol down was technically denied, it has remained down.
In July of 2014, the Love Family Christian Foundation purchased the nearly 90 year old building from the Family Life Church. As work goes on both inside and out to repair damages of time and neglect, the old Elgin Masonic Temple prepares itself for restoration.
According to a late 2015 Daily Herald article by reporter Elena Ferrarin, “Plans [for 310 E. Chicago Street]…include hosting educational and skills training, business incubation and programs for youth.
http://gis.hpa.state.il.us/hargis/ [Searched 310 E. Chicago Street]
McAlister, Lee and Virginia. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.