CEDAR RAPIDS — While “National Treasure” opened fictional film doors to an epic trove of artifacts supposedly hidden by Freemasons during the Revolutionary War, Eastern Iowa’s Scottish Rite Masons have opened their very real temple doors to the public, revealing a local treasure once shrouded in secrecy.
The halls inside the Greek-style three-story stone structure on A Avenue NE now ring with the music of the Beethoven Club, Harmony Hawks, New Horizons Band and “Follies” auditions and rehearsals, as well as the revelry of wedding receptions and parties in the dining room, meetings in the library and boardrooms, and plays, dances, auditions, fundraisers and concerts in the auditorium.
It’s a win-win for the community and for the Masons who have called the temple home since 1927.
“We benefit more from the exposure than we do from the money” generated by facility rentals, said Douglas Heath, 74, of Cedar Rapids, registrar and building manager. He hopes community users come away feeling “we’re good people that you’d like to associate with.”
“So many people think, ‘What is that place up there?’ It’s kind of mysterious, but not so much when you’ve been here a whole lot,” he said with a laugh.
The Masons, a worldwide fraternal organization that supports charitable causes and emphasizes personal growth and education for its male membership, has roots reaching back to 1717 Scotland. Meetings are steeped in rituals, and members move through various “degrees” of lessons, with corresponding plays presented twice a year, hence the need for a stage and its assortment of painted backdrops.
The main auditorium has 400 permanent theater seats, and 100 chairs can be set up on the floor in front of the stage. A dance floor also can be rolled out on the freshly carpeted main floor. Upgrades have been made to the electrical and plumbing systems and roof, and plans call for expanding air conditioning to areas beyond the public-use spaces. The industrial kitchen has eight bread ovens, a large freezer, refrigerator, two stoves and a dishwasher.
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The building’s parking lots have 109 spaces, and more parking is available in nearby lots that have reciprocal agreements with the temple.
“Our goal is to make the building as flexible as possible for the community,” Heath said, adding that Thursdays are the best day for interested parties to come and check out the facilities. Fees vary, with discounts given to groups with ties to Masons members. Wedding reception rental generally runs about $1,000, and recent changes to other facility-use fees, for groups such as theatrical troupes, are under discussion.
Heath said the idea for opening the doors to the public came “a few years back,” when the local Chamber of Commerce approached the Masons.
“They said we need to be good citizens and share,” he noted. “From then on, we made some changes, to say the least. A bunch of guys getting together, they don’t quite make it as fancy as when you’re bringing friends in.”
Some of the members still wrestle with the notion of letting the public into “our house,” Heath said, but overall, community usage is working well.
“Everybody’s been great,” he said. “We have a real good bunch of people in town, we really do.”
The building, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, provided an ideal backdrop to Revival Theatre Company’s fall production of the musical, “Parade,” set in Georgia in the early 1900s.
“What I loved about that space is that it matched our story,” said Cameron Sullenberger of Cedar Rapids, Revival’s musical director and co-founder. “It looked the part, and there aren’t that many choices for venues, unfortunately, with as many arts organizations as are performing in our wonderful town.”
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It was a welcome discovery for Revival’s artistic director, Brian Glick of Cedar Rapids. He had been in the reception hall, but didn’t know the auditorium existed until Sullenberger suggested using it for the roving troupe always on the lookout for rehearsal and performance spaces. They used the space for “Pippin” rehearsals last spring, then decided to use it to stage “Parade” in November.
“It fit that rustic, gritty feel that ‘Parade’ was,” Glick said. “What made that experience for us and the audience so exhilarating is that it felt like the building was built around that show.”
The biggest challenges came from the lack of state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, but Glick said it was well worth the expense of bringing in additional equipment for the theatrical lighting and images that served as the show’s scenery, projected on the back brick wall.
“We pushed the limits of that space,” he said.
RHCR Theatre, another new, small professional troupe, has staged “Clue” and “Disney’s Cinderella Kids” there, but is finding the need to bring in lighting and sound equipment too expensive, on top of the daily facility rental fee, said Matt Ford of Cedar Rapids, RHCR’s founder and executive director.
“The building is just awesome,” Ford said. “It is so old and cool, and the history that goes along with the building — that’s what attracted me. ... Most people don’t know there’s a 400-seat theater in that building, because they’ve never been in there. ... It’s a really neat facility that we really, really hope to use again, but we’re in negotiations.”
Even with the technical hurdles and the learning curve of accommodating groups that need ample load-in time and evening rehearsals, Glick said Revival Theatre “would love to do a show there again, but it has to be the right show to fit that space.”
“We’re grateful that Doug (Heath) was there and that he opened the doors and allowed us to be there,” Sullenberger said, calling the building “a treasure chest of time, of Cedar Rapids.”