Let the Light Shine

A visit to New Haven's Masonic temple
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Photo by Alexandra Schmeling.

On the morning of Oct. 19, the New Haven Masonic Temple — a grand three-story brick building on Whitney Avenue, guarded by a regal staircase and four thick columns — was crawling with people. Most of them were members of one of the 10 lodges that use the building. A few, like me, were curious members of the public.

Freemasons, The Simpsons and National Treasure had taught me, were robed men chanting Latin spells and conducting the occasional ritualistic sacrifice, all while infiltrating the highest ranks of politics and finance. But one recent afternoon, jogging down Whitney, I had seen a massive banner hanging off the imposing façade of the temple: “MASONIC OPEN HOUSE! All are welcome!” So here I was, wandering in and wondering how “Masonic open house” wasn’t an oxymoron.

After helping myself to a free bagel, I asked to speak to someone who could tell me about the New Haven masonry’s past, and was introduced to Brad Cooney, Martin Ede, and Steven Ellison. All three are middle-aged. Ellison and Cooney wore polo shirts; Ede wore a blazer and khakis. Ellison explained that only the Scottish Rite Masons wear robes, and only during certain ceremonies. But he does have a top hat for special occasions.

Much like the Boy Scouts of America and World of Warcraft, masonry has a complicated system of levels of recognition, called degrees. To advance in degree, men must undergo “Masonic education,” which Cooney called a “transformative experience.” Light, he said, plays a major symbolic role in masonry, and the open house is a chance to correct misconceptions and “let Masonic light out into the community.”

Ede and Ellison’s lodge, Hiram Lodge, was the first to be founded in Connecticut, in 1750. According to a booklet I found in Sterling Memorial Library, published by the New Haven Masons in 1916, the lodge held its first documented meeting “at Jehiel Tuttle’s place,” an inn on College Street very near present-day Calhoun College. A few American lodges were founded earlier, but “Old Hiram” has outlasted them all, and now holds meetings in the Whitney Avenue temple, which was built in 1926.

Couches in the “Ladies’ Lounge,” the black and white tile floors, and one of New Haven’s oldest elevators are all largely unchanged from the building’s early years. Each of the temple’s several vast meeting rooms — each uniquely decorated with a Greek, Roman, or Egyptian motif — is fitted with an organ. In each room, a master’s chair faces toward the east, and a golden “G,” surrounded by sun-like rays extending outwards, appears in several places. Depending on whom you ask, the meaning of this symbol is “God,” “geometry,” subject to interpretation, or a complete secret.

Standing in the Greek room with Ellison and Gary Matican, a member of the Cosmopolitan Lodge, I ask if there are any disputes between the lodges. Not really, they say, though there are two small areas of contention: gavels and chicken.

On gavels, Cosmopolitan is the clear winner. Matican bangs the Cosmopolitan gavel on a table and it makes a surprisingly high-pitched ringing sound. I nod, solemnly.

On chicken, however, Hiram dominates. Each year, it hosts a fundraiser called the Hiram Chicken Challenge for a local hospital. All of the lodges field a team of four chicken-eaters. What sort of chicken? I ask.
“Like giant chicken tenders,” Ellison says. “The winner ate 43.”

Matican rolls his eyes. “How long did your guys starve so that you could make a good showing at the Chicken Challenge?”

“Trade secrets,” Ellison says, solemnly. Hiram has won for the past three years.

Part of me was disappointed to find that the Freemasons, so enigmatic and patrician in our collective consciousness, had been reduced to participating in competitive eating contests. But the Masons, Ede said, are a “quiet society,” not a secret one. And they don’t hide what they really are: open, friendly, philanthropic, and occasionally willing to eat inhuman quantities of chicken in order to benefit charity and cultivate the ties of brotherhood.

As I prepared to leave the temple, I met a pair of Yale students standing by the bagel table and asked whether they’d enjoyed the event.

“Wait, what is this?” said one.

“We just crossed the street because we saw free food,” said the other.

They had never heard of freemasonry, so there were no misconceptions for the open house to correct. I suggested they look at the impressive Egyptian Room. They shrugged and went inside, apparently unaware that they were basking in more than 250 years’ worth of Masonic light.

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