A veil of secrecy and mystery still surrounds both the Freemasons organisation and its South Australian headquarters, despite free guided tours of the building having been made available to the public every Thursday afternoon for the past 20 years.
The conundrum of such public trepidation galls many current Freemasons who want such uncertainty to end. They hope that inviting more outsiders into the hall may peel away some of the mystique they believe affects the image of Freemasons.
Freemasons Hall, built in 1925 for £116,318 (about $12 million in current money), is an intriguing structure with its own secrets. One of the more surprising is that it is largely built from reinforced concrete rather than the originally intended cut stone and granite, due to the prohibitive cost of the stone.
Its grandeur remains intact, although faded, and its design and symbolism are compelling. Intricate patterns of black and white floor tiles, the mix of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, motifs featuring the square and the compass – all of it has meaning that pertains to Freemasons lore. But a musty odor lingers in many of the high-ceilinged chambers, providing a gentle reminder of the Heritage-listed building’s deep age, and that it needs costly maintenance work.
Still, it’s hardly a ghostly place, despite its Gothic pall. It has tenants, with two floors currently leased to the University of Adelaide’s media and marketing department and previously to organisations including UNICEF.
Many other rooms throughout the six levels can be accessed and hired. The extensive library can be visited by the public every Wednesday, where lodge records and lectures can be read but not borrowed, although tomes on Freemason rituals are off limits to outsiders.
Among many exhibits of artifacts belonging to famous Freemasons on display throughout the corridors and anterooms is a large collection devoted to explorer John McDouall Stuart. Other ceremonial garments and portraits proudly identify such prominent South Australians as Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Sir Donald Bradman.
Many larger rooms have been leased for functions since the turn of the 20th century – from weddings to ballroom dancing competitions, performance broadcasts (a soundproof booth constructed by the ABC is still intact) and university examinations. Video clips for rock bands have been shot, and Windmill Theatre recently used one hall as a rehearsal and performance space.
The presentation of arts events within Freemasons Hall is growing ever more frequent. The Sam Jacobs Room in the basement served as a performance space in the recent Adelaide Cabaret Festival. The basement bar established in the Mumbai Room as a late-night cocktail lounge during the 2019 Adelaide Fringe has the allure of an old-fashioned gentleman’s club, with its dim lights, dark timbers, emerald green paint and overstuffed chairs, yet, despite a few cryptic Raj-era paintings on the walls, nobody knows how this space obtained its exotic name. Another secret.
Still, encouraging such a parade of outsiders into the hallowed hall doesn’t sit comfortably with some older Freemasons, many who joined after the Second World War and relished the rigid discipline and rigour of their closed society. But times have changed – and from a postwar peak of about 27,000 members in SA/NT, there are now about 3000 Freemasons. A liberalisation of attitudes among younger Freemasons has even raised the question of marketing the organisation and building its brand.
It’s a tricky dilemma for a group that insists on not actively seeking recruits, nor openly advocating what their meetings, teachings or work inside the lodges entails. Grand Secretary Joe Marschall admits it’s a time of significant self-examination, although he notes an enthusiastic new wave of younger Freemasons. “They believe something is missing in their lives – purpose, direction – and they seek it outside of religious institutions or existing service groups such as Lions or Rotary.”
Indeed, because the Freemasons are not bound to any one faith, yet all pledge acknowledgement of a supreme being, its membership includes Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians of all denominations. And despite fierce hostility with Catholics in the post-war years, there has recently been a Catholic Grand Master.
It therefore irritates more recent Freemasons that their organisation attracts great suspicion from an unknowing public, even connotations of darkness. “It’s an organisation with some secrets, not a secret organisation,” says Steve Brown, 64, who only joined the Freemasons seven years ago, after a decorated career as an academic and company director in event management. “The only true secret is what has occurred inside of me. How I have been affected and grown since joining the organisation is something that only I can understand.”
It’s a personal journey that is – as Brown likes to say – “on the level”, referencing a term derived from Freemason terminology. He even shows me inside the three rooms where lodge meetings occur (though we didn’t visit during a meeting).
“It bothers me that there’s this suspicion about Freemasons, that some sort of darkness is assigned to us. To counter the secrets of our meetings, people create their own stories and come up with the wrong answers. This organisation was formed in the Age of Enlightenment and it still aims to enlighten by helping good men become better men.”
To alleviate some of the mystery, Freemasons are making themselves more visible – presenting a float in the Port Adelaide Christmas Pageant, and having a contingent in the Bay to Birdwood car rally. The Grand Master, in ceremonial apron, now lays a wreath at the War Memorial for Anzac Day’s dawn service. There’s even a Grand Lodge Facebook page – “but we’re very careful about what we say on it,” admits Brown.
Being cloistered inside such an old, imposing building as Freemans Hall is a challenge as the organisation aims to assert its contemporary relevance, but they bargain on sparking curiosity in more than a few outsiders who enter the grand lobby. “There is still a sense of mystery,” says Brown, “and that’s its great allure.”
254 North Terrace, Adelaide
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