A tour of the most striking building on Main Street, one of the most elaborate Shrine temples in America.
The place was designed to be eye-catching, on what was the outskirts of town 100 years ago. Bold, onion-shaped copper minarets on the roof, cast concrete arches over the windows, a scimitar over the entryway. So much time has passed that the symbolism of the brooding man above the door, if there was symbolism, has been lost. Members say there’s a good chance he was an extra Arabic flourish.
The Kora Shrine Temple has stood on the corner of Sabattus and Main streets in Lewiston for a century, a ceremonial space and clubhouse for members of the Masonic order. The building has been lent an air of mystery by its looks and the fraternity’s secretive reputation.
Years ago, parents warned children not to walk by the front door if they didn’t want to be snatched. More recently, new Somali immigrants have wandered in mistaking it for a mosque.
Nearly 20,000 men have become “Nobles of the Mystic Shrine” inside, then picked up bag pipes, donned clown noses and driven small, silly cars for worthwhile charity. Thousands still belong.
To celebrate its 100th anniversary, the temple will be rededicated next Saturday with pomp and ceremony. Earlier this week, Past Potentate Frank Preble and others offered the Sun Journal a look inside, at the building’s history, upkeep and needs, and a free-wheeling commentary. Shriners were, after all, designed to give the Masons a dose of fun.
That’s probably why, when asked if the building has any trap doors or secret passages, Preble deadpanned that they’re all guarded by alligators. “It’s kind of a one-way thing … it’s really not very friendly.”
Alas, no alligators, no trap doors, but plenty of everything else.
Members had outgrown meeting space on Lisbon Street when they commissioned the temple in 1906. The building, which cost $100,000, looks the same now on the outside as when it was dedicated in March 1909.
As for all the ethnic flourishes, “I think part of it may have been the fact they wanted to raise some eyebrows so people would be curious and interested and check it out,” said Chief Rabban David Lidstone of Auburn.
It became the 59th Shrine temple chartered in the U.S., Preble said. Each of the current 192 temples has a different name; Kora comes from an ancient city in the Middle East.
“This is probably one of the most ornate Shrine temples in North America, in all truthfulness. There are some that have a few murals in it and that type of thing, but this is one of the most ornate if not the most ornate,” Preble said.
Preble, also from Auburn, is group treasurer and vice chairman of a Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, Mass., the group’s charity.
The building’s interior is largely the same today as 100 years ago but for some retrofitting: Electric lamps, sprinklers (added, ironically, after the building became non-smoking,) vinyl-cased windows, an elevator and a conversion from coal to oil heat.
The temple didn’t have insulation in the walls when it was built in 1909. It doesn’t now, either. This year’s fuel bill: $40,000.
City tax records value the building now at $1.5 million.
The dining room
Harry Cochrane’s murals rule the dining room – massive, nearly floor-to-ceiling pieces that depict Biblical passages like The Day of the Camel and The Conquest of Jerusalem.
Cochrane was a longtime Shriner and the artist behind the murals at Monmouth’s Cumston Hall.
“He was an artist of some renown,” Preble said. “Some of these were painted in his gallery on canvas and moved here and mounted to the wall, others were painted here in place. There’s no rhyme or reason to how they are. They’re not in chronological order.”
The murals were restored in the 1970s, removing decades of after-dinner pipe, cigarette and cigar smoke. They give the room, with tall ceilings and lots of gold filigree and maroons, a museum quality.
The room can seat 425. At the first dedication, attendees ate in two shifts with no time to wash dishes between meals. Kora plates and bowls to serve that many still sit in a room-turned-cupboard out back.
Eight big Shriner functions are held there a year. A small bandstand at the head of the room hasn’t been used for a while.
“They used to play during dinner, when we were more sophisticated,” Preble said. “That was before rap.”
The Ceremonial Hall
The enormous second-floor hall is ringed with room for seating on the floor and in a mezzanine. There’s a stage at one end for business meetings and performers. The center holds dances and the annual, single public event, the FEZtival of decorated Christmas trees. It’s capable of holding 1,200 people with space left in the middle for ceremonies. On the walls is the original green, burgundy and gold-leaf pattern never retouched yet still pristine.
“I can’t imagine you could find someone that would have the patience to redo all these cutouts, I just can’t imagine you could find someone that wouldn’t go crazy,” Preble said.
The star of the hall is a nearly 2,000-pound custom Tiffany chandelier that escaped a catastrophic near-miss last year.
The grand chandelier, as old as the building, is anchored by two ties to the attic and takes four men to lower.
“We were bringing it down to change the light bulbs and all of a sudden one of the cords, we had two there, one of them broke and the other one fetched up and caught the cog. If it hadn’t … it might have gone right downstairs,” smashing through the dining room ceiling, said Tony Perkins of Monmouth, the Shrine’s unit colonel and custodian.
“Let me tell you, when I got home, I went and took a shower. I was sweating that night.”
If the top floors are for ceremony and statesmanship, the temple’s basement is simply for hanging out.
In the early 1990s, “one of our past potentates thought it needed a little more warmth,” Preble said, and covered the concrete walls with a tongue and groove pine. The walls in the large open room are lined with trophies and plaques from different competitions. Lots of doorways lead off the main chamber. One’s marked The Oasis (it’s got the keg cooler).
Another’s marked Klown room, with two murals of the Big Top inside.
“It’s colorful but not offensive, I guess, if you’re into purple and mauve,” Preble said.
Outside the bagpipe room across the hall – “As you can see, they’re into skirts and plaids, so they’ve decorated their room a little differently” – is a wide black and white photo dated 1920. It was taken in front of the old Poland Spring House and in it hundreds of smartly dressed men fill the lawn.
“That was the class of men that joined that year. We were growing in leaps and bounds. It wasn’t unusual to have a class of 150, 200 folks back in the early ’20s,” Preble said.
Membership at this temple, which draws Shriners from the southern half of Maine, peaked at close to 6,000 in the 1990s.
“As of today, there are 2,760. Unless somebody died that I didn’t know about,” quipped Past Potentate and recorder Paul Sherman of Winthrop.
As good as its condition is, the temple, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has a few major repairs around the corner. Decorative cast concrete around the windows that lends roadside flair are starting to decay.
That’ll be a costly repair, said Trustee Randy Murray of Turner.
The building’s general upkeep is paid for with member dues, an investment account and three major fundraisers a year.
Preble said he started to worry about the original copper minarets on the roof about 10 years ago. He got an estimate at the time: Shriners would need $100,000 for the copper alone, plus labor. He started a fundraising campaign at the time.
“They’re not structural, they just sit on the roof. But when you get up there, you can actually get inside and see it’s pitted, the copper is about gone,” he said.
“It would be a shame not to have those; that’s part of what makes the building so unique. You can see them from Auburn.”
Parts are so thin, Preble believes they would crumble to the touch.
“They’re not meant to last more than 100 years,” said Lidstone. “And we’re there.”
Members of the public are welcome to poke their head in almost any time, Preble said. Or, call ahead and ask for a guided tour. That way, they can appreciate the grandeur and remove a little of the mystery.
“A lot of people have lived here all their lives and never been in, and that’s a shame because they don’t know what’s in here,” Preble said.
“It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Shrine, and we’re just very, very fortunate to have it in Lewiston, Maine. It’s a legacy of our forefathers, our grandfathers and our fathers before us.”