The city of Los Angeles evokes many romantic and apocalyptic images to the popular imagination, but the visual culture of Freemasonry is likely not among them. Yet this fraternal organization, although supposedly shrouded in secrecy, has its symbols boldly emblazoned on Masonic lodges across this sprawling cityscape from Santa Monica to Glendale to Burbank. Often incorporating fanciful historic appropriations (such as the Mayan Revival style of the North Hollywood Lodge), these buildings rival the showy movie palaces that are their architectural neighbors. This is no accident, for long before Hollywood existed Masons were staging elaborate costumed rituals in front of fantastical painted backdrops. Indeed, many of the film industry’s early pioneers, including Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, Darryl F. Zanuck, and Walt Disney, were Masons.
Built in 1961, Millard Sheets’ Scottish Rite Masonic Temple at 4357 Wilshire Boulevard is one of the last of these theaters of ritual built in Los Angeles, its epic scale reflecting in part the final stages of the postwar economic prosperity enjoyed in the United States. The Wilshire building contained classrooms, meeting rooms, an impressive library, a 2,000-seat auditorium, and a dining hall that could serve up to 1,500 members. Sheathed inside and out in marble and travertine, the temple was modern in its sleek lines yet archaic in its monumentality—a perfect metaphor for an organization that valued the ancient, yet wanted to remain relevant to contemporary society.
The many sculpture groupings dispersed along the exterior wall of 4357 Wilshire Boulevard by Albert Stewart, a friend and colleague of Sheets and head of the sculpture program at Scripps College in Claremont at the time, depict individuals important to Freemasonry. These figures include Albert Pike, a nineteenth-century Mason who in 1871 wrote a key text, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry; and George Washington who served simultaneously as the first president of the United States and the first Worshipful Master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22. In addition, there are figures from the ancient world that the Masons identified with such as Imhotep, the Egyptian considered to be the first architect and King Hiram of Tyre who sent Solomon materials and labor to help build the First Temple. The theme of great builders and the history of the Masonic Scottish Rite are echoed in the nearly four-story mosaic on the east exterior wall of the building.
Established in 1801, the Scottish Rite provided an additional twenty-nine esoteric degrees (as opposed to the standard three-degree lodges) that led the candidate through intricate, dramatized historical and religious ritual journeys requiring intricate costumes and numerous, elaborate scene changes. The Scottish Rite Cathedral constructed in downtown Los Angeles between 1905 and 1906 (now gone) was, in its day, on the cutting edge of Masonic theater technology. Its enormous auditorium boasted eighty-four scenic drops. A number of these backdrops were relocated to the Wilshire lodge and are now in the custody of the Marciano Art Foundation. It is very rare for non-Masons to be able to see and study such backdrops, and these examples are particularly stunning.
Further dramatizing these backdrops were the lavish costumes worn along with wigs, fake bushy eyebrows and mustaches all meant to transform a traveling salesman into a patriarch of old—one cannot help but think of the joy the men must have felt shedding their conventional business attire to done themselves in velvet robes festooned with jewels and other adornments. The great appeal of the Scottish Rite might have been the freedom men felt—among their “brothers” and within the “safe spaces” of the lodge where all were sworn to secrecy—to rid themselves of the restrictive one-dimensionality of conventional public demonstrations of masculinity.
The arts have always been an important means of communication within Scottish Rite Masonry, and now the Marciano Art Foundation can continue this tradition in their own fashion, housed in their beautiful temple.