John Pagella's advice for maintaining masonic halls in a modern world

Friday, 04 September 2015

Keeping the doors open

Grand Superintendent of Works John Pagella looks at the challenge of maintaining masonic centres and halls in modern times

Freemasonry is by no means unique in finding that as times change, and the needs of its membership evolve, buildings once well suited to their function become too expensive to maintain. We need to ensure that if masonic use declines, our buildings adapt to attract outside interest, generating income and strengthening their connection with the local community.  

While individual circumstances vary widely for each masonic hall and centre, the first step is to examine the potential for introducing outside uses. This is not achieved by simply advertising availability and hoping for the best. It requires analysis of the type of users for whom the building might be suitable, and consideration of whether what is needed can be managed while retaining masonic use. 

London’s Surbiton Masonic Hall is a positive example of what can be achieved. Glenmore House was built as an imposing Italianate-style private villa in 1840 at a time when residential development was extending out from London into the surrounding countryside. By 1920, it had become one of the many houses that were too large and expensive to run as private homes, so was put up for auction. 

It was purchased by four local masons, becoming known as Surbiton Masonic Hall, and was dedicated as a peace memorial.

For much of the 1900s the house flourished as a masonic centre, but as the century drew to a close it became clear that, once again, a change was required. Masonic membership was in decline, with fewer people attending meetings and a number of lodges handing in their warrants. A decrease in income meant that without a radical change in the way that the building was used, closure was inevitable.

Business foundations

Fortunately, the board of directors of Surbiton Masonic Hall included people with experience in building and development, as well as running commercial companies. They recognised that managing a masonic centre today is no different to running a hospitality company. Freemasonry is a craft but running masonic halls and centres is a business, requiring the same commitment, financial skills and disciplines. 

Although the property’s design, finishes and furnishings were dated, the potential for creating a self-contained hospitality suite was recognised. The building included a large ballroom with its own independent bar, but while the existing kitchens had coped well for many years, they were not suitable to support the standard required for outside events. Complete modernisation was therefore needed. 

Even if the refurbishment had been confined to these areas, much would have been achieved, but it was felt that the contrast between the facilities available to outside users and those offered to Freemasons would have been all too obvious. Furthermore, the loss of the ballroom for masonic dining would have reflected badly on the centre’s continuing commitment to its Freemasonry. 

With this in mind, dining accommodation at first-floor level was also refurbished and moveable dividing partitions erected to permit two units to dine simultaneously. The adjacent bar was modernised to the same high standard as the bar in the hospitality suite.

A new lease of life

The revenue generated from opening Glenmore House up to outside use has been vital. It has not only secured its future as a financially viable masonic centre, but also enabled the centre to become more of a focal point for the local community. ‘Far from losing identity, the changes we made enabled the community to identify the values that Freemasonry actually represents today,’ said Robert Dobbie, Managing Director of Glenmore House. ‘For the past 10 years we have participated in the Heritage Open Days, we are used as a local polling station, we host a twice-weekly bridge club as well as monthly lunches for Barclays bank and the BBC.’

Masonic centres and meeting halls are all individual, and it would be wrong to suggest that what worked in this case would always be successful elsewhere. However, there are some general principles. First, masonic buildings exist to serve the needs of members, but that purpose can only be sustained if they are managed in a way that is financially viable. In many cases this will mean shared use, which must be approached with the needs of the outside user in mind. The competition can be fierce and that means adopting a more proactive strategy than just advertising accommodation for hire. 

One final thought: those who take their own advice will in most cases have no recourse should things go wrong. If a masonic centre or hall has professional expertise within its members, by all means use it, but always consider the value of using outside consultants as well. Their more objective approach might be beneficial, and those giving outside advice may also have a legal liability.

‘Masonic buildings exist to serve the needs of members, but that purpose can only be sustained if they are managed in a way that is financially viable.’

Letters to the Editor - No. 32 Winter 2015

Maintaining masonry

Sir,

As Superintendent of Works for the past 40 years, I read with interest the article in the autumn issue by John Pagella, the Grand Superintendent of Works. I totally agree with him that because of rising costs it is a challenge to maintain masonic halls, especially old ones. 

Ours was built in 1860. Fortunately, like Surbiton Lodge, we have members who are experienced in the building trade and have contributed to the maintenance of the lodge buildings, not taking any remuneration for their work. Also, we have a good social committee that provides us with funds to help pay for the work we cannot do and for materials.

I joined Freemasonry in 1966 when we had a lot of members who were textile business owners employing maintenance men to look after their buildings. I have always wondered why the lodge building was nearly in a state of dereliction when I became Superintendent of Works in 1975.

At that time we had retired members on fixed incomes and my thoughts were that if we can keep the costs of running the lodge low there would be no reason to increase subscriptions. This worked and still does. Our subscriptions are among the most reasonable in the Province of Yorkshire, West Riding. 

I have read of many fine old masonic buildings being closed and sold, and most have accommodated multiple lodges. Big is not always good. We have only one Craft lodge and three side Orders meeting at our building, yet our subscriptions are among the lowest in the Province. I have noted some of the outside users John Pagella writes about who use their building and I will suggest to our lodge committee that we could do the same thing. 

L R Hirst, St John’s Lodge, No. 827, Dewsbury, Yorkshire, West Riding

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