Masons on the move
A NEW HISTORY OF THE SCOTTISH RITE TEMPLE
Santa Fe’s Scottish Rite Center has a new life. The long- inscrutable, Pepto- Bismol- pink building, which was nearly sold in 2014, remains a vital Masonic institution and is now open to the public for arranged cultural events, especially those that support children. A new book, The Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple: Freemasonry, Architecture, and Theatre, offers an in- depth look at the building and its members, along with scores of photos of the century- old scenic stage drops that the Masons employ in their allegorical degree ceremonies. Celebrate the book release on Sunday, June 24, with tours of the Moorish-revival building and a “Scenic Spectacle” featuring elaborately costumed Masons. On the cover is a scene from degree production “Knights of the Sword, of the East, or of the Eagle,” King Cyrus’ courtyard, image courtesy Museum of New Mexico Press, photo Jo Whaley.
Si x years ago, local Scottish Rite Masons marked t he centennial of their singular building on the corner of Washington Avenue and Paseo de Peralta. Just in the last few years, others in the community have had another reason to celebrate: Following a sea change in the organization’s policies, the temple, long shrouded in mystery, is open to all for arranged events. And the new book The Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple: Freemasonry, Architecture, and Theatre (Museum of New Mexico Press) features nearly 150 photographs of the iconic building and its dozens of century- old backdrops that the Masons employ in their semiannual degree ceremonies.
“One of the landmark points of this book is that no Scottish Rite organization in the world has ever allowed the photography of all the stage settings,” said Khristaan Villela, a Scottish Rite member and one of the book’s essayists. The progression of the 29 degrees (steps in a progression earned by witnessing a series of morality plays) conferred by the Santa Fe Scottish Rite Masons is a remarkable storyline, as it were, with spectacular stage drops bearing names like Veil of Tears, Fiery Torments, and Hall of Equity.
Get a taste of this fascinating realm at the bookrelease event at the Scottish Rite Center on Sunday, June 24. Bagpiper Robert Schlaer will welcome the public at 4 p.m., followed by Eric Fricke playing the center’s organ, presentations by editors Wendy Waszut-Barrett (text) and Jo Whaley (photography), and then a “Scenic Spectacle” with Masons in costume and Morrow Hall playing the organ. There will also be tours of the building, book signings, and refreshments in the grand ballroom. The presentation and Scenic Spectacle repeat at 6 p.m.
In the book’s first two essays, New Mexico state historian Rick Hendricks illuminates the complex history of freemasonry, which many historians believe was derived from the masons who designed and built buildings, and who were conversant in the arcana of architecture and geometry. Hendricks provides great detail on lodges, degrees, and the “appendant body” known as the Scottish Rite, which actually had a French origin and grew in the United States beginning in 1801.
By the mid-19th century, freemasonry was well established in Northern New Mexico. Among the ranks of the Masonic orders were 11 New Mexico governors, including Charles Bent, Lew Wallace, and L. Bradford Prince; as well as frontiersman Christopher “Kit” Carson, attorney Thomas Benton Catron, and prominent merchants the Spiegelberg brothers.
A NEW STYLE FOR SANTA FE
Isaac Hamilton Rapp was the first architect considered to design a Scottish Rite temple for Santa Fe. His plan was for a neoclassical building not unlike those he used for the first state capitol and the first governor’s mansion. The choice of a Moorish-revival building, designed by the Los Angeles firm of Sumner Hunt and Silas Burns, was inf luenced by another important local Mason, Museum of New Mexico founder Edgar Lee Hewett.
This construction took place in an unusual coincidence of design debates: the Scottish Rite ultimately opened on Nov. 17, 1912, one day before the opening at t he Palace of t he Governors of t he New- Old
Santa Fe Exhibition, which proved to be the genesis of the Spanish-Pueblo Revival architectural style, or Santa Fe Style.
“It is very interesting that this building was a kind of fulcrum in the whole debate around what style Santa Fe should use to promote itself,” Villela said. Plans for the new Masonic building were developed
at a time when Americans had a fascination with Orientalism and a fantasized version of the “exotic East.” “People were aware of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, but also Hewett and others, such as the chamber of commerce, were very interested in identity and the increase in tourism. They realized we have something to trade on, which is the relationship between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Santa Fe, Granada, which explains the paintings on the Scottish Rite stage curtain and above the proscenium, that connection with Old Spain.”
Villela said that the iconic touchstones of the Moorish-revival style included the Alhambra, the fortified hilltop palace in Granada, Spain; the Great Mosque of Córdoba; and the Giralda Tower in Seville. The Alhambra dates from the centuries of Islamic rule in Granada. Arab and Berber Islamic forces conquered much of Spain in 711. One of the important moments in Spanish history is shown in a mural above the proscenium arch of the Scottish Rite Center’s auditorium: a depiction of the 1492 surrender of Muhammad XII, the last sultan of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, to Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain.
The Moors were a presence in Spain for seven centuries, and a lasting influence on language, architecture, and other realms of Spanish culture. “All you have to do is learn the basics of Spanish language and you have words like adobe and alfombra, all of those Arab-loan words in Spanish. So many aspects of North African or Islamic culture were completely baked into Spain from those 700 years of back and forth. The artesonado geometric-pattern woodwork ceilings we find in colonial Mexican architecture are considered to be essentially Spanish, but we know they came from North Africa,” Villela said. “At Scottish Rite, there is a conceptual overlap if you look at Islamic geometry, but I don’t think it had anything to do with the construction of the building, as such. Maybe it’s coincidental, but the Scottish Rite is a very apt space for people who spend a lot of time thinking about geometry and mathematics and astronomy.”
The exterior of the building, which some residents have nicknamed the Pepto-Bismol Building, is thought to have originally been an earthier pink. Its front steps number 29, the same as the number of degrees conferred in the Scottish Rite lodge. The structure, which is made of hand-mixed concrete, is “very solid,” Villela said. In his essay, he describes interior details, including the arched doors and windows, having their top sections framed by alfiz moldings, Navajo-style rugs bearing Masonic devices, the library, banquet hall, a midcentury dormitory wing, and, most splendid of all, the auditorium with its gold-painted choir-loft screens, sky-painted ceiling, and scores of fantastic stage backdrops that were produced by the Sosman & Landis Studio of Chicago.
THE CEREMONIAL SCOTTISH RITE
Waszut-Barrett writes that the productions during which Masonic degrees are conferred evolved from simpler ceremonies “in dark and nondescript places” to include elaborate room decor, costumes, and “atmospheric effects and illusions to further depict the legendary occurrences as presented in Masonic degrees.” Examples of the Scottish Rite degrees are the fifth degree, Perfect Master, which incorporates lessons in honesty and trustworthiness; the 20th degree, Master of the Symbolic Lodge, concerning
liberty, fraternity, and equality; and the 25th degree, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, designed to instill the concept of the pure, celestial, eternal soul of man.
Masons rely on fraternal supply companies that specialize in regalia for kings, shepherds, soldiers, priests, and other characters for the theatrical degree productions. These companies supply wigs, beards, and much more. “Each degree demanded a series of unique artifacts, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Scales of Justice, the Delta of Enoch, golden vessels, candelabras, skeletons, caskets, silken banners, and even stuffed sheep,” Waszut-Barrett writes.
The essayist and editor provides great detail on painting techniques that made use of dry pigment and dyes resulting in drops that are still vibrant after more than a century. Waszut-Barret founded a company specializing in historic theater scenery restoration in 2000 and led the restoration of the Santa Fe Scottish Rite scenery collection beginning in 2002. Today she is president of Historic Stage Services LLC in Minnesota. The standard drop size was 24 feet high by 36 feet wide. Each drop was sandwiched between wood battens at the top and bottom. The top was attached to three wire ropes with a counterweight at their other ends, and these were hung on beams with pulleys. The system allows stagehands to easily raise and lower the hanging drops.
In one special- effects technique, a panel of theatrical gauze is attached in the midst of a drop scene. Lit from the front, the panel blends into the rest of the drop surface. But when lit from the back, a painted form — such as the Ark of the Covenant in the Treasure Chamber scene — is magically revealed. Many of the scenery backdrops are shown along with smaller painted leg drops and cut drops, which add dimension to the foreground and middle ground, respectively.
“What’s so, so special about this theater is that it’s all preserved,” said Whaley, a photographer who is represented by Photo-Eye Gallery. “In the history of scenic art, we have basically a museum piece here in Santa Fe. And it’s so well preserved because of our dry climate and because of the care that the Masons have given it. It’s living history. The drops, and many of the costumes, are over a hundred years old.”
Whaley photographed many of t he backdrops several years ago, when the Scottish Rite building was briefly on the market. “My MFA in painting is from UC - Berkeley, and for five years after that, my day job was as a scenic artist at the San Francisco opera and ballet companies. I knew what I was looking at when I saw these scenic backdrops.” It took her two months to convince the head mason to allow her to document many of the stage drops.
“The Masons used my photographs to promote the theater for rentals,” she said. “The other thing I did for them was lighting design. I ran that board [the original Frank Adam Electric Company lighting controls] and wrote down for them the numbers for the right lighting for each drop. It’s all about color. The lighting is art. I tried to use all the natural light that was existing because I wanted a sense of authenticity. And I wanted it to look like there was a layer of dust, because that’s what that place is like.”
“What’s so, so special about this theater is that it’s all preserved. In the history of scenic art, we have basically a museum piece here in Santa Fe. And it’s so well preserved because of our dry climate and because of the care that the Masons have given it. It’s living history.”
— photographer Jo Whaley
PEOPLE IN THE SCENES For the book project, Whaley populated her photographs of the Scottish Rite backdrops with actors. She worked with Waszut-Barrett in an effort to recreate the degree enactments as they were done when the building opened 106 years ago. “Wendy is extremely knowledgeable about every facet of this, so she did the setups and I asked her, ‘OK, what would be happening here in terms of the plot? And once I knew that, she stepped back and I could direct the guys on the stage so that I could get the right visual representation and the sense of depth and the integration with the backdrops. Basically, I wanted to do a tableau vivant for each one, so it would make sense as a one- shot image for the reader.”
Most of the actors shown on stage in the temple are local Masons (including Villela), but when necessary, Whaley was obliged to add a few other acquaintances. Also seen in costume are photographers Brad Wilson and Peter Ogilvie, sculptor Walter Robinson, and curator Daniel Kosharek of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. The reader will notice that some of the figures are blurred. That was intentional. “I wanted that sense of animation,” Whaley said, “and I didn’t want it to be so much about the individuals.
“As an artist, this book represents a real stretch for me. I’m basically acting as a photo editor and doing documentary work, where my whole world has been fantasy work. When I was a scenic artist, that’s living in an imaginary world. This is the first time I’ve done a ‘document.’ ”
This particular document will be a revelation for area residents who have been curious about the Scottish Rite Center and what goes on there. “It’s like a Wes Anderson film set; it’s so bizarre,” Whaley said.
The elaborate dramatic sets and costumes are brought into play twice a year to confer the Scottish Rite degrees. “It’s done in the fall and spring in what are called reunions,” Villela explained. “In the early days, they would also do special reunions — for example, for soldiers going overseas in World War I. And these require over a hundred people to put on, with the makeup and props, stage sets, actors, and all the cooking for meals. What happens on that weekend is that all candidates watch the degrees. A couple of the degrees are read to you in classrooms, but most of the degrees are staged with actors and costumes. Each degree has a script, a lesson that’s intended to be shown to you. For example, one degree is all about preparing to take care of your family after your death. There are many that teach lessons in civics, because the modern Scottish Rite in the U.S. was gelled in the late 19th century, and a lot of lessons are about being a good American.”
While Masonic ceremonies vary from nation to nation, “in general, the basic ideas emerged out of the Enlightenment,” Villela said. “They have to do
with human rights, freedom, and democracy, which have a particular U. S. spin in the Scottish Rite, so there are discussions about opposition to tyranny and arbitrary rule. But they’re worked out in these historical morality plays set in ancient Egypt and the Crusader period and medieval churches peopled by knights.”
The teaching stories contain multiple levels of meaning. “They’re allegories. That’s the foundation of all of freemasonry,” according to Villela. “They’re telling you that one of the key tools is the trowel, for example, but very few freemasons are building buildings today.”
In 2014, the Santa Fe Scottish Rite was nearly sold. When membership fell below 1,000, the leadership recognized that the organization could not financially support the aging structure, according to longtime Mason Bert Dalton, board president of the Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple Historical Preservation Foundation. A smaller, more modern facility seemed preferable. Dalton noted that many grand Masonic buildings built from the early to mid-20th century have been sold and repurposed, including 13 just in Arizona and Colorado.
However, the sale was strongly opposed by a large number of Santa Fe Scottish Rite members, and many members of the general public. The issue was resolved with revision of the corporate structure and the election of a new board of directors. Since then, local Masons have donated thousands of volunteer hours on maintenance and restoration, and a venue coordinator was hired to manage event and facility rentals. In 2017, rental discounts to nonprofit organizations put $93,000 back into the community.
Dalton said the foundation is “building a development program to fund restoration projects that will ensure the temple is around for future generations. We are community partners and want to continue to provide a special place for arts, culture, history, and education, with the emphasis on programs that support children. We heard the huge public outcry when the temple was for sale and know the community is behind us.”
The Scottish Rite remains an active institution in Santa Fe. “It is lively,” Villela said. “They do meet monthly. There are three different groups, each having charge over a certain number of the degrees.” He stressed that unmasking the backdrop scenes and divulging many of the details of the degree ceremonies has not diluted their significance for Scottish Rite members. “Jo has basically inventoried the backdrops, and you can look up all the secrets online. But that can never replace what it actually feels like, the bodily experience, to spend two and a half days going through these degrees from noon on Friday to Sunday afternoon. It is a cathartic experience.”
“In general, the basic ideas [of Masonry] emerged out of the Enlightenment. They have to do with human rights, freedom, and democracy, which have a particular U.S. spin in the Scottish Rite, so there are discussions about opposition to tyranny and arbitrary rule.”
— Khristaan Villela, Mason