Visitors to the Iowa Masonic Library and Museums at 813 First Ave. SE walk between two large marble lions as they enter the building that houses one of the largest Masonic libraries in the world. The 15,642-square-foot library has a collection of more than 150,000 books as well as thousands of artifacts.
The first Masonic Library in Iowa was built in Cedar Rapids due to generous donations and the foresight of teacher, lawyer, judge, state officer and library collector Theodore Sutton Parvin.
Parvin became Iowa’s first state librarian in 1838 when territorial Gov. Robert Lucas handed him $5,000 and sent him back East to buy books for a territorial library. From then on, Parvin was a collector of books, art and curiosities from around the world.
When Parvin, a Mason, came to Cedar Rapids, he started the Masonic library in his home. It became apparent a building was needed. Most people thought it would be in Des Moines, but Cedar Rapids offered $10,000 and a lot along First Avenue. The Masons built a $32,000 fireproof library — of brick, stone and iron — that opened in 1884.
The library’s collection grew in scope and value, requiring an addition in 1913.
The Iowa Masonic Library and Museum’s Artifacts
Among the library’s growing collection was the framed print of the largest photograph in the world. It was taken by George R. Lawrence in 1905 with a huge cherry wood camera he built to photograph a train for the Chicago and Alton Railway. The single plate was 4-1/2-by-8 feet.
In 1921, Grant Wood was commissioned to paint a three-panel canvas of “The First Three Degrees of Freemasonry.” The artist became a Mason at Mount Hermon Lodge No. 263 that year.
In 1946, lodge members felt their building was too cramped and began saving funds for a new library.
THE NEW Iowa Masonic library
In 1951, Lena Hodgin transferred her house at 827 First Ave. SE to the Masons, who combined it with the adjacent property as the site for the new library.
In 1953, the lodge decided to raze the house and its lodge, library, and addition to create enough space for the library’s 62,000 volumes and collections.
Cedar Rapids issued a building permit in July 1953 for the new L-shaped library designed by Mason City architects Hansen & Waggoner. O.F. Paulson Co. was general contractor.
More than 500 people witnessed the laying of the cornerstone on Oct. 10, 1953.
In March 1955, workers began transferring 36 truckloads of books and artifacts into the new, $1 million white marble building.
placing the lions in front of the Iowa Masonic Library
The exterior was finished with the exception of the two marble lions that were to sit on either side of the library’s First Avenue entrance.
The crated lions, which arrived in April from Proctor, Vt., presented a peculiar problem for the construction superintendent, Arnold Larson. Each lion weighed 3,000 pounds, so setting them on their pedestals was going to take some engineering.
“There’s no way to pick them up except by slings,” Larson said at the time. “We have the problem of getting the slings out and still have the giant heads in exactly the right spot. Once they’re in place, there’s no jockeying them around as you might get a piece of metal.”
Larson opted to use an “old engineering trick” involving ice.
Eight 20-pound blocks of ice were placed at the eight corners of the lion’s pedestals. The lions were lowered onto the ice, and the slings removed. Water from hoses was sprayed on the ice to hurry its melting, while engineers maneuvered the lions into place.
It worked, and the lions haven’t moved in the past 64 years.
One of the Paulson officials said the ice solution “is one of the older tricks of the business. I saw it explained in an engineering textbook that was published in 1913.”
A groan worthy PUN
When the new Iowa Masonic Library and Museums was dedicated on June 14, 1955, The Gazette’s city editor (and later managing editor) Jack Illian quipped that anyone looking at the huge statues would have to conclude, “There’s a lot of reading between the lions.”
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