Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Scottish Rite History in Fort Wayne

The Scottish Rite is moving out of its building at the corner of Ewing and Berry as St. Francis University has purchased the structure and prepares to expand course offerings and create a new program in Media Entrepreneurship in the Arts.

This remarkable downtown building holds a great many memories for Shrine and Scottish Rite members and is a part of the history of our city.

The Scottish Rite is one order of the Masons, an organization created in 1717 in England that claims George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as members from colonial days in America.

The original Scottish Rite Cathedral in Fort Wayne was on the corner of Washington and Clinton Streets. This building, which sat next door to the Masonic Temple, no longer exists. The Scottish Rite bought the Mizpah Shrine building on West Berry in 1953.

Guy Mahurin, who at the time was one of the better-known architects in Fort Wayne and a member of the Shrine, designed the structure on Berry for the Mizpah Shrine with a fa├žade “intended to create an atmosphere of the orient and yet give it a logical setting in the midst of a modern American city,” according to a history of the Scottish Rite provided to this writer.

Max Irmscher & Sons began construction in April of 1924 with 200 workers, mostly local, taking a year and a half to complete the project at a total cost over $1 million. The ballroom’s excavation took two steam shovels and six weeks to complete. More than 350,000 bricks were used in the building’s construction and led to the structure being considered the most “fire-proof” building in the city at the time.

The facility, which had its grand opening on November 18, 1925, was created to provide Northeast Indiana with some much needed community meeting space for speakers and theatrical productions as well as for large banquets. The original configuration of the auditorium allowed for 2,400 patrons and the lower level banquet hall seated 2,000. Because the Shrine needed the auditorium no more than five days a year, the remainder of the time was filled with other events.

The first of these was a performance of “Aida” by the Chicago Grand Opera Company. This was followed by “The Ziegfield Follies” with Fanny Brice, Mae West in her controversial play “Sex” and Ethel Barrymore in “Scarlet Sister Mary”.

In 1937, due in large part to the Depression, the Mizpah Shrine lost the building, which was purchased by Kaplan Realty for a cost of just over $50,000. Continuing as a community center, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic was one of many groups performing there.

Mayor Harry Baals, with the support of local music groups, stopped a move in 1941 to rip out the main floor seats and turn the auditorium into a bowling alley. But in the 1930s and 1940s, the ballroom was used as an indoor golf course.

The Quimby Theater chain leased the auditorium in 1945 and renamed it Quimby Auditorium. Entertainers such as Victor Borge, Duke Ellington, Tallulah Bankhead and Janet Blair performed in stage productions. The Quimby’s also showed popular movies of the era such as Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” and “The Mikado”.

The auditorium remained the home of the Shrine Circus until 1952 when the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum was built.

The Scottish Rite purchased the facility in 1953 and in 1958 undertook a major renovation which updated the building. Use of the structure by community groups continued as well as the hosting of performers such as Imogene Coca, Betty Grable, Marcel Marceau, Eileen Brennan, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and Peter Nero.

The year 1963 saw the addition of the west building, which housed Scottish Rite administrative offices, the Gentleman’s Lounge, Lodge Room and small dining room.

Popular entertainers continued to perform in the auditorium with Glen Campbell, Jack Hanna, The Temptations and Keith Urban featured on stage at various points.

One of the more interesting facets of the Gentleman’s Lounge was a large flag—12 feet by 16 feet--that was the first official flag flown for a vice president of our country. Thomas Riley Marshall, vice president during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, substituted for Wilson at the opening of the Panama-Pacific Exposition on March 15, 1915. When the fleet commander discovered that Marshall was stepping in for Wilson, he had the flag made at the Navy Yard in San Francisco for the USS Colorado, the battleship designated as flagship.

The flag was first displayed in Fort Wayne at the original Scottish Rite Cathedral on Clinton and East Washington Streets. Similar to the Presidential Flag, it has a white background as opposed to the blue of the president’s flag. Mrs. Marshall, upon the death of her husband, gave to the flag to William Geake, one of the founding members of the Fort Wayne Scottish Rite.

For those of you not familiar with Marshall, he was a prominent lawyer in Indiana, and as our state’s 27th governor, served amid some controversy over his proposal of progressive reforms to the state constitution.

Marshall’s time as vice president was also not without controversy as he and Wilson disagreed on political ideology, leading Wilson to limit Marshall’s influence and move his office away from the White House. Marshall was the first vice president to conduct cabinet meetings, doing so while Wilson was in Europe. He presided over a Senate during anti-war debates that gridlocked legislation, leading Marshall to move forward on a procedural ruling that filibusters could be ended by a two-thirds majority vote.

Wilson’s advisers and wife, none of whom liked Marshall, kept him from assuming control of the presidency when Wilson suffered a stroke in October, 1919. Although he was urged to forcibly assume the presidency, he declined to do so, fearing this would establish a precedent that was not good for the country. But because there was no strong leadership in the executive branch, the ratification of the League of Nations treaty was defeated thanks to the work of the administration’s opponents and the United States returned to an isolationist foreign policy.

Marshall coined a quote many of us remember: “What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.” This was in response to Senator Joseph Bristow’s list of the nation’s needs during Senate debate.

Marshall opened an Indianapolis law practice after serving as vice president, traveled, wrote several legal books and his memoir, “Recollections”. He died on a trip in 1925 after suffering a heart attack.

Even though the Scottish Rite has sold their building, they will continue to be a part of the Fort Wayne community. New office space will soon be announced and if there is room to display Marshall’s flag, it will again be on display. If that is not possible, the flag will be sent to the American Heritage Museum in Massachusetts, also home of the Supreme Council of the fraternity.

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