PORTLAND – A half-century ago, hundreds of men would enter the side door of a Congress Street office building in downtown Portland.

They’d change into uniforms complete with ostrich-plume chapeaus and ceremonial swords. They might share a meal in a wood-paneled cafeteria that seats 360. They would attend meetings inside a 4,000-square-foot hall surrounded by Corinthian columns, and witness elaborate, ritual performances in an auditorium that features 45-foot ceilings and two pipe organs.

Today, the stunning and surprising spaces inside the 97-year-old Masonic Temple remain largely unchanged, although lightly used.

$5.25M asking price

As membership in the Masons dwindles, trustees that own the building have put the 62,000-square-foot fraternal gathering place up for sale. The asking price is $5.25 million.

Potential buyers who have toured this living museum are struck by the level and quality of architectural detail, according to the commercial broker who is showing it. They talk about the potential for hotel, theater and office space, and possible water view condominiums on the top floor.

Still to be determined is how much of the Masonic Temple’s glorious past can be carried into the future, for what preservationists consider one of the most endangered historic properties in Maine.

Low membership

Freemasons call themselves the oldest and largest fraternal organization in the world. Their ranks were fuller in 1911, when they commissioned architect Frederick Thompson, whose Portland work includes the former state armory on Milk Street, to erect a grand meeting place.

Even 20 years ago, more than 36,000 Mainers were members of the brotherhood. Today there are roughly 21,000, and they are mostly older.

Portland’s Masonic Temple is the hub in a network of Maine lodges that numbered 219 in 1955, and have dwindled to 187 today. Some, in Yarmouth, Kennebunk and Farmington, for instance, have been redeveloped.

These trends have been evident for years in larger cities. Temples in Pittsburgh, Providence, R.I., and New Orleans have been turned into a university function hall, hotel and condominiums, respectively.

In Portland, the Masonic Temple at the corner of Congress and Chestnut streets is unique in the state, both for its history and its interior architecture.

A case in point is Corinthian Hall, a solemn meeting place graced by 20-foot stained glass windows, ornate columns and 30-foot-high paneled ceilings. An altar in the center of the room contains a Bible, which contributes to the room’s religious aura. The hall was designed for the installation of officers and other important rituals.

“I don’t think there’s a better room in the state of Maine for our purposes,” said Rob Lind, who chairs the Masonic trustees. “All of us feel a sense of stability here. It’s dignified. Sobering.”

A sense of history

With Lind on this day was Matthew Cardente of Cardente Real Estate. His task is to help a buyer see this grand space in a different light, perhaps for an art gallery, museum or high-end conference room.

Cardente and Lind are discussing the potential for the Masons to retain some of the more significant space after a sale, perhaps through a lease-back arrangement. That would allow the group to receive a financial benefit, but not lose all use of the property, which already functions as retail and office space on the Congress Street side.

The sale presents a dilemma for Lind and the Masons. Beyond personal development, Masons are committed to philanthropy. Many people are familiar, for example, with the Shrine Masons, or Shriners, and the network of free children’s hospitals they support. In deciding to sell the Masonic Temple, trustees had to weigh the cost of heating and maintaining a massive building that’s used infrequently against their wider mission.

“There are rooms I’d hate to give up,” Lind said. “It would break my heart. But it could be argued that the money is better used for charity.”

On an upper floor, wooden lockers hold the theatrical costumes and stage props used in the ritual plays, or degrees, that convey the values at the heart of masonic advancement. The productions take place in the Scottish Rite Auditorium, which seats more than 700. Visitors are taken by surprise to see such a large, ornate theater hidden in a six-story office building next to City Hall. Today, the auditorium is used only a dozen or so times a year

“Welcome to one of Portland’s best kept secrets,” Lind said.

Preservation efforts

But the Masonic Temple is no secret to Maine Preservation, the statewide historic protection group. It has listed the temple as one of the state’s most endangered historic buildings.

Greg Paxton, the group’s executive director, said he fears a sale will lead to substantial alterations of the interior spaces. Paxton hopes a buyer can find ways to reuse the key areas without making major changes, and allow the Masons to continue using some of the decorative spaces. Retaining the auditorium, for example, is a laudable goal, Paxton said.

“But the difficulty,” he said, “is finding the means to buy it and keep it running in a prime piece of real estate.”

The top floors may be considered prime real estate, for reasons not contemplated by early 20th century developers.

Commanding views of Portland Harbor and the adjacent City Hall clock tower offer the potential for residential development. On a clear day early this week, the snowy flanks of Mount Washington and the Casco Bay islands were easily visible from the roof. A buyer will also control air rights that could allow additional stories to be added to the building, according to Cardente.

The Masonic Temple is coming on the market, of course, in the midst of a global financial crisis. Cardente has sought to price the building competitively, more than $1 million below its assessed value. Federal and state tax credits for historic renovations also could lower redevelopment costs.

The price also reflects upgrades that would be needed, such as a modern elevator system. In keeping with the building’s historic persona, the two original, cage elevators are operated by an attendant.

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