19th-century skyscraping

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry salutes the Craft's tallest building, in an exhibition that explores the role of this fraternal organisation in America's history

The Masonic Temple in Chicago was, for a brief period in the 1890s, the tallest building in the world. Built in 1892 and designed by the famous architects Burnham and Root, it was 302ft (92m) high and stood at the corner of Randolph and State streets. The masonic rooms were at the top of the 22-storey building, with a central court surrounded by nine floors of shops and offices. Although Chicago’s building regulations did not allow taller structures until the 1920s, the Masonic Temple was overtaken by the Manhattan Life Insurance Building in New York, at 348ft (106m) in 1894.


It was the tremendous growth in the number of Freemasons in America between the end of the Civil War in the 1860s and World War I in 1914 that prompted the building of the Chicago skyscraper and other large masonic halls across the country. As the population grew and more immigrants arrived to seek their fortune in what was becoming the world’s largest economy, Freemasonry provided a source of charitable support and a place in society for its members.

Sadly, all that now remains of the Chicago Temple are the souvenirs. The lifts proved to be inadequate for the number of people who could potentially use the building and it became less popular with commercial tenants. The construction of the State Street subway in the 1930s would have required extensive work on the building’s foundations, which could not be justified, and so it was demolished in 1939.

The Chicago Temple was commemorated with postcards and souvenirs, which can be seen in the Library and Museum’s latest exhibition, the Patriot Mason: Freemasonry in American Society – from 4 July until the end of 2011. It explores Freemasonry in American society from its origins in the early 1700s to now, using many rarely seen objects, books and documents from the Library and Museum’s own collections, as well as material on loan from masonic collections in the United States.

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