Landmark decision: Iconic Masonic Center going up for sale
November 30, 2012 - Updated: 1:30 a.m.
Spokane’s historic Masonic Center is for sale.
The downtown landmark – once one of the city’s foremost entertainment venues – faces an uncertain future, its current owners say.
The nonprofit that manages the facility has decided the five-story building on Riverside Avenue is too expensive to operate. Ron Cunningham, president of the Masonic Temple Association of Spokane, said maintenance costs can’t be covered in a down economy.
The association board hired Spokane realty firm NAI Black to market the building nationwide.
A second factor in the decision, Cunningham noted, is the steady decline in the all-male Masonic membership. There are still more than a dozen area lodges or related groups, including women’s auxiliaries, but their collective membership is steadily falling, he said.
“We have a hard time competing with young men who have families, who have to work two or three jobs,” Cunningham said.
The social goal of the Masons hasn’t changed, however; it continues to be “the betterment of people,” he said.
“But we don’t recruit. People have to come to us to be a member,” he said.
The building’s asking price is $1.75 million. Spokane County lists the assessed value at $1.3 million. This is the first time the building – originally the Masonic Temple – has been for sale.
It’s been continuously occupied throughout its 107-year history, said Carlton Oakes, CEO of the Masonic Temple Association of Spokane.
Opened in 1905, the original, smaller Masonic Temple twice was visited by President Theodore Roosevelt. A member of the Masons, Roosevelt dedicated the 1903 laying of the temple cornerstone.
In 1911, Roosevelt made a return visit and took part in a Masonic ceremony inside the building.
In the 1920s the membership of the nonreligious fraternal group swelled. That led to the decision to enlarge the building to its present size, roughly 110,000 square feet.
Flanked by the former Elks Temple on the west and the original Spokane Chamber of Commerce building on the east, the center’s iconic features are 18 gray stone columns lining the building’s 220-foot-long façade on Riverside Avenue.
In recent years the building has been rented for proms, parties, weddings, fundraisers, company meetings, social events and even boxing matches, Oakes said. But those events have dropped off by 48 percent since last year due to competition from other venues.
“The reason is primarily weddings. We’re not (booking) as many weddings as we did before,” Oakes said.
For more than 20 years the center also has housed the nonprofit RiteCare Spokane clinic. The clinic offers free speech therapy to area youths between 2 and 7 years old. If the building is sold, the RiteCare clinic will relocate and continue to be supported by the Spokane Scottish Rite, one of the area’s Masonic groups, Cunningham said.
To cut costs while the building is on the market, Oakes said he’ll stop renting it to outside groups. The Masonic Temple Association will continue letting area Masonic groups use the building while it’s for sale.
Money to keep the building open comes from outside rentals, from fees paid by the local Masonic groups who meet there, and from an annual stipend by the Spokane Masonic Temple Foundation.
This year’s operating budget so far has been $390,000, Oakes said. If not for the annual support from the Masonic Foundation, the building’s budget would be in the red, he said.
There are two large performance areas in the building: a lower-level auditorium and the 7,000-square-foot ballroom. Several other meeting rooms, such as the Rose Room and the Blue Room, are historically preserved shrines recalling the days when the building hosted Masonic ceremonies, business group gatherings and six-course dinners for Spokane’s rising middle class.
The building is part of the federal Riverside Avenue Historic District. In 1991 it was added to the Spokane Register of Historic Places. Because of that status, changes to the exterior have to be approved by the Spokane Historic Landmarks Commission.
But changes inside the building don’t require that, said Kristen Griffin, the Spokane city/county historic preservation officer.
Ron Wells, a Spokane developer and historic preservation advocate, said he sees potential for the building as a performance and event facility, with a solid marketing campaign to support it.
“I hope someone buys it with the right attitude about preserving and protecting its distinctive history,” Wells said, adding he’s not likely to consider adding the structure to his roster of projects.
The building has been a regular location for Spokane-based film company North by Northwest Productions Inc. Rich Cowan, a company founder, used the Masonic Center for at least four films shot in Spokane.
“It’s historically authentic and has plenty of other rooms so that you can use one area to film and another room to stage and organize stuff,” Cowan said.
A recent North by Northwest film, “Camilla Dickinson,” is set in New York City in the 1940s. Cowan used a number of rooms inside the Masonic Center to evoke a restaurant and other locations.
More than a decade ago the Masonic Temple Association renamed the building the Masonic Center. It did so to remove any confusion over a possible religious affiliation.