I open this blog post with not a little trepidation, given the extraordinary level of disapprobation from historian James Stevens Curl for those who are not quite up to speed on or serious connoisseurs of Freemasonry, Masonic architecture, its symbolic representation and how the “Craft,” as Curl puts it, has influenced history. As one who enjoyed Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (2003) in the not too distant past, based on themes of Freemasonry, if I recall correctly, I certainly fall beneath the bottom run of Curl’s ladder of reprobates for that error alone, even though I was not taken in by the book, or remember much of it. I merely found it entertaining. (Sorry!) Nevertheless, I press on.
Freemasonry originated in the late 13th century in connection with craft unions and the building of churches and cathedrals. It supposedly regulated craftsmen in their dealings with clients and early regulators. Supposedly it still does, but in a more profound manner. Many historical figures claimed to be Freemasons or were members of Masonic lodges, for which (again, supposedly) there is no international control or headquarters. Freemasonry early on rejected the participation of women, so it is hardly surprising that it is controversial today. It seems to speak to us in a symbolic language, though often that is denied, along with many other aspects of its being. Why the Craft has long been so controversial I hesitate to speculate.
Freemasonry had four headquarters here in Providence – first, for the St. John’s Masonic Lodge, a third story built in 1797 atop the 1773 Market House, whose second story served as an early town hall; second, in the Masonic hall built in 1886 at 123 Dorrance Street and replaced in 1897 by another Masonic hall built on the same site, which survives but was abandoned in the 1960s by the lodge for a site in suburbia; and an intended fourth hall, or temple, on Francis Street: in 1928 work was abandoned with only the shell completed and unoccupied until it was finished, 89 years later, as a hotel in 2007 (photo above). Veterans Memorial Auditorium, completed in 1950, was to have been an annex to the Masonic Temple, and still serves as a symphonic hall with excellent acoustics, where for several decades the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra has held forth.
Novels by Dan Brown are almost universally condemned as badly written and stupid, however entertaining and whatever their position on bestseller lists may be. Likewise, I take no position on Freemasonry or its heirs and assigns (if any), except that I find its influence on architecture fascinating. So I commend to readers a book Curl wrote in 2011, Freemasonry and the Enlightenment: Architecture, Symbols, & Influences, which is about to be republished.
I here reprint passages from its introduction. I offer a link to the whole intro for those who might want to experience Curl’s denunciatory capabilities. They also are exercised extensively in his brilliant history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (2018). Passages from his introduction to Freemasonry and the Englightenment follow, after which is a link to the whole passage from which these are extracted, and a PDF of an advert for the book, with an order form, as it has not yet been republished.
The present study … is intended as a sober introduction to a subject that perhaps has generated wild, even hysterical, speculation, rather than cool appraisal and thorough scholarship, yet the importance of that subject must be obvious to anyone with an interest in European and American civilisation, especially during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There can be no doubt whatsoever that Freemasonry played a central rôle in the Enlightenment, so the fact that so many so-called “academics” have avoided the issue is very peculiar, indicative of cowardice, dishonesty, or worse. …
Now there is an obvious danger in seeing allusions to Freemasonry everywhere, and of ascribing to buildings and artefacts connotations that are, at best, tentative. That danger I have tried to avoid, proposing Freemasonic influences only where there are clear indications they are real and not figments of fancy. Some Freemasonic emblems and motifs are shared by other societies and bodies, and some are simply part of an enormous range of images and elements that can be found within the rich language of Classical, pre-Classical, and Neo-Classical design. Two columns or a triangle, for example, are not necessarily indicative of Freemasonic allusions, but on the other hand they might be: I have attempted to differentiate where possible. Broken columns may indeed signify a life cut off, but they are not necessarily Freemasonic, yet they can be: they can also be the result of vandalism. All this sounds vague and difficult, and so it is, but there is no doubt in my mind that a careful study, as far as is possible, reveals interesting and relevant byways in the history of Architecture and Design. …
Similarly, the design of many late eighteenth-century buildings, gardens, and cemeteries, and the contents of some well-known Continental literary texts, can make sense only when allusions are understood and recognised. It is known that during the 1780s and 1790s in the Empire many musicians, architects, writers, theorists, philosophers, and even churchmen (of many persuasions) joined Freemasonic Lodges in numbers, and there can be no doubt that Freemasonry not only offered many of the finest minds of the Enlightenment something not available in other organisations (including the churches), but attracted the loyalty and interest of an astonishing number of significant historical figures. …
It is most regrettable that Freemasonic studies have been bedevilled by certain writings of a journalistic and sensational type. The ‘secret’ nature of much of Freemasonic ritual has, of course, encouraged speculation and a certain wild denunciation verging on the hysterical: it is not to the credit of many in public life today that exaggeration and condemnation have come so easily to them (but a cursory glance at their backgrounds and politico-religious affiliations explains much, and does nothing to instil confidence in their abilities to act free from prejudice). This is all the more peculiar since so much about Freemasonry is readily available in standard works of reference. … Freemasonic concepts of death, trial, and descent to the depths are clearly described in many books, and are implicit in the text of [Mozart’s] Die Zauberflöte, although obscured in the opera-houses of today where productions and designs strive after Post-Modern “originality” and “contemporary meaning” only to make nonsense of the work and display an abysmal ignorance of the essence of the piece as well as devaluing it and besmirching something beautiful.
I have often been asked if I am a Freemason. I reply, with truth, that I am not a joiner, but such a remark prompts narrowed eyes, pursed lips, and an obvious certainty in my questioners that this denial must be an elliptical way of admitting adherence to the Craft. The hostility is often overt, and it is obvious that the media have been successful in besmirching Freemasonry to the extent of giving it a wholly unwarranted Bad Name. That this campaign of vilification has succeeded is clear when one peruses the biographies of well-known personages (including architects) who were prominent Freemason.
[In a note, Curl adds:] One of the reasons why I never wanted to become a Freemason is that I dislike meetings: as an academic I had to attend more time-wasting meetings than I care to remember, meetings revelled in by people who had nothing better to do, and who could never recall what was discussed at the last session. Pointless, fatuous meetings for the sake of having meetings are no way to use with profit one’s brief time on earth.