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‘An insider’s view’: SF’s Scottish Rite Temple subject of new book

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Painted on a canvas above the stage at the Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple is a depiction of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain accepting the 1492 surrender of Moorish ruler Muhammad XII. For 10 years, the two sides had battled over what’s now the Spanish province of Granada, home of the famous Alhambra castle.

Earlier this month, sitting in the front row of the strikingly pink Santa Fe building’s theater, 33rd-degree Santa Fe Scottish Rite mason Dan Irick pointed out a small tent city painted in the Alhambra’s shadow. It was where Spanish armies camped while trying to seize the castle.

That city was later named – and remains today – Santa Fe.

So it’s fitting that more than a century ago, when Santa Fe Scottish Rite, part of the worldwide Freemasonry fraternity, was going back and forth on architectural inspiration for their massive new building, the group eventually requested a design based on the Alhambra – “to architecturally connect Santa Fe, New Mexico, to its colonial heritage in old Spain,” said Irick.

The Scottish Rite Temple is shown shortly after its completion in 1912. A new book chronicling the history of the building and Freemasonry in New Mexico comes out this weekend.

The Moorish Revival temple, built in 1912, and the fraternal society that uses it are now the subject of a book from Museum of New Mexico Press. “The Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple: Freemasonry, Architecture and Theatre” launches this weekend with a book-signing, a lecture and demonstrations at the temple.

“They were a centerpiece of the community; sort of a symbol of progress,” New Mexico state historian and co-author Rick Hendricks said about masonic temples, as Freemasonry grew in popularity during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Santa Fe temple was built and is still used as a place for members to put on their “morality plays” – dramas specific to Masonic degrees that represent life lessons – twice a year for new members.

Just a few years ago, the future of the four story, 44,000-square-foot building was unclear. Leadership put the building up for sale in 2013 due to rising expenses and declining membership. But a few months later, the membership voted not to go through with a proposed sale and the temple was taken off the market.

Irick, the president of the chapter’s Building Association, said the chapter that had almost 4,000 members in the 1950s is down to around 700 today.

“What we realized out of the threat of losing it (the temple) is what this building means to the city of Santa Fe and the state of New Mexico, not just us as a fraternity,” Irick said.

“We’ve made a commitment to share it with the community and preserve it for our use and public use, and by doing that we hope to also gain enough public support for us to maintain and keep it into the future.”

The Scottish Rite Temple as it stands today.

Irick says that in recent years members have made a more concerted effort to rent out the space for outside uses like weddings, shows in its 300-seat theater and ballroom events. It’s also served as a set for movies and TV shows. The temple had parts in the 2016 film “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and TV series like “Longmire” and “Waco.”

The new book, which Irick hopes will help the Scottish Rite members continue sharing the building’s story, evolved from a multi-year project by local photographer Jo Whaley.

She became enamoured with the temple’s theater and the scenic backdrops for the Freemasons morality plays after taking her students from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design there. Once the building went up for sale, she decided to photograph the dozens of scenic art pieces.

The same plays have been put on by Scottish Rite chapters in the U.S. since the mid-1800s, according to Irick, and take inspiration from the Old Testament, Egyptian mythology, the Knights of the Round Table and other historic sources.

“They’re taught in the moral sense teaching ethics, honor, brotherhood, charity,” he said.

What struck Whaley, a former scenic designer for groups like the San Francisco Opera, is that the same backdrops have been used since the building’s creation. Other theaters paint over scenery or have continually updated their backstage technology.

She said the photos in the new book provide a “time capsule of theaters” dating back to the late 17th century.

The Santa Scottish Rite theater stands out from most others across the country, said Wendy Waszut-Barrett, a Minnesota-based Masonic theater expert who co-edited the book with Whaley. And not just because it’s pink.

Santa Fe’s dry climate has kept the scenic artwork intact, she said, leaving it with nearly no water or humidity damage. The first time the backdrops received any restoration work was between 2002-05 when Waszut-Barrett was called on to clean and stabilize them.

“The fact that it hasn’t moved, it hasn’t been damaged and it was restored at the absolute last minute … . Everything was perfect timing,” she said, describing the temple’s collection as “Grade A.”

For the book, she and Whaley arranged photos in which Scottish Rite members are in their traditional costumes – some of which are also more than 100 years old – with the correlating backdrops. Waszut-Barrett posed the scenes as they were designed in 1912. Irick noted that depiction of some of the scenes has changed over the years.

“Both the members and the general public are seeing what a 1912 audience would have seen in full color,” she said.

And why the pink color?

The color of the building connects somewhat back to the Alhambra, which in Arabic means “the red one.” According to the new book, the Santa Fe temple’s original color was much darker or “muted,” also described as “slap dash pink.” The building’s exterior became a lighter shade of pink after several repaintings, the most recent of which was undertaken in 2010.

To round out the book, local historians like Hendricks and Khristaan Villela were tapped to author chapters on the building’s background and the history of freemasonry in New Mexico, which started to emerge in the mid-1800s.

“It was a way for people to become integrated in this emerging society,” said Hendricks. “In New Mexico, you have prominent Jewish merchants and Protestants all in freemasonry.”

Nationwide, most prominent men during the time Santa Fe’s temple was built belonged to a fraternal organization, Hendricks said. For Scottish Rite, that meant people like Edgar Lee Hewitt, the founder of the Museum of New Mexico. He was the one who led temple architects toward the Alhambra-inspired look.

The formation of the masonic chapters did cause a rift between the Hispanic Catholic community and those involved in the secret societies, Hendricks said. Even with declining memberships, and most chapters downsizing from their lavish temples, he said these “misunderstandings” and tensions still exist today.

He says the book on Santa Fe’s chapter allows readers into a world that they likely have misconceptions about – common masonic conspiracy theories include that Freemasons control the U.S. government or worship the devil. Freemasonry hasn’t been the subject of much outside scholarship.

“It’s an insider’s view that people wouldn’t normally be able to see,” he said. “Not because they would be prohibited, but probably because they would never find occasion to do it.”

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