The Masons have better legends than the rest of us. It's not just that no one has accused most of us of secretly ruling the world for centuries. It's that even their offhanded anecdotes have a certain mysterious ... something about them.
Like, for instance, the one about how they came to have a statue of the Buddha at their main office, housed in the imposing limestone temple that has stood at the lip of Lower Broadway for nearly a century. For most of us, such a story would involve a trip to the flea market or a find somewhere on vacation.
But not this statue, not this building. The story goes that in 1906, a mysterious circus rolled into Nashville. No one had heard its name before, or knew where it had come from. The circus pitched its tents, performed — and as quickly and quietly as it had arrived, departed in the middle of the night.
Only one sign remained that it had ever been here. The next morning, Ben Allen, a turn-of-the-century Mason, heir to a Nashville banking fortune and lifelong aficionado of the supernatural — a man for whom circuses and sleight of hand held special fascination — opened his door. There sat the Buddha statue, greeting him on his doorstep.
Today, the statue overlooks a secretary's desk in the main offices of the The Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons, a building at Seventh Avenue and Broadway that tens of thousands of Nashvillians pass every day without knowing the rich history inside. Every detail of the building has been chosen and curated to illustrate the traditions, teachings and history of the Masons in Tennessee. And since it just so happens that the history of the Masons in Tennessee is entwined with the history of powerful and important men in Tennessee, a trip to the temple housing the Grand Lodge is a history nerd's delight.
But who knew that ordinary non-Masonic history nerds could even go there? Not I. For centuries the fraternal organization's practices and inner workings have been closely guarded secrets. Historically, Masons have been hounded by religious groups, viewed with suspicion by conspiracy theorists — heck, even parodied on The Simpsons. I don't know if the Masons have become more open in recent years, or if I let my own beliefs about the secretive nature of the Masons color my expectations. But I was gobsmacked when I was invited to tour the Grand Lodge.
If you're familiar with Nashville's historic churches, the general feel of the Grand Lodge will come as no surprise. The basement contains a large kitchen and a dining hall, while the grand entranceway off Seventh encourages people to congregate and socialize. And as with most any historic church, there's a lot of woodwork, beautiful stonework (as one would expect from Masons) — and an overall sense that any closet or drawer might house something interesting that's lain forgotten for decades.
The elevator opens on the first floor right into the Scottish Rite library. From the floor up to about six feet, the whole room is wrapped in glass-fronted wooden bookcases, each colored that dark reddish-brown attainable only by letting the stain age 100 years or more. All that's missing is Nicolas Cage and an encoded copy of the Declaration of Independence. Above the bookshelves, portraits of the earliest Masonic Grand Masters ring the room.
"Is that ...?"
"Andrew Jackson. Yes, ma'am."
The men in the portraits are all dressed in their finest suits, with a large starred collar, either red or blue, draped over their shoulders and a small gold starburst attached to that collar, hanging down at mid-chest level. The striking thing is just how good the portraits are. Bad technique and antique hairdos often assure you that you're looking at someone long dead. But the men in this library look like people you might see on the street, or perhaps at a Masonic reunion.
The Grand Lodge oversees the Masonic lodges (or chapters) in the state of Tennessee. The building can host many hundreds of people at once, but the local lodge has a room on the second floor for regular meetings. It's about the size of a grand ballroom, with a striking white barrel ceiling. There are three chairs in the room — the highest at the far end, the second-highest at the near end, and the third-highest in the middle, off to the right. These are for the three highest-ranking officers. The rest of the seating is provided by pews on rollers.
The room is painted a bold robin's-egg blue, and the floor, with its black-and-white checkerboard rectangle in the middle, harkens back to the floor design in Solomon's temple, or so the story goes. This checkerboard motif is repeated on the floor of the theater, also on the second floor. On three sides, there are steep banks of theater seats that reach three stories high.
The stage itself is a marvel. I wouldn't be surprised if it were the largest in town. On the left side, there's a whole control booth tucked in the wing, filled with retro-futuristic gun-metal switches and gizmos. That they still work is a testament to the quality of craftsmanship.
Hanging above the stage is every backdrop the Masons might need, all hand-painted on canvas, some half-a-century old. The flats form a veritable museum, tucked out of the way until one is needed. On the right wall are tied all the ropes for lowering and raising those backdrops, looking almost like some kind of stringed instrument for giants.
Everything in the building is designed to reaffirm that Masons of the moment are taking their places in a long history. It's not just the hundreds of large portraits of past Grand Masters hanging everywhere. It's the walls full of pictures of lodges, the glass display cases full of hats and gloves, the personal belongings of men who are otherwise nothing but names in history books, if even that.
Of particular interest to me was the chance of finding lore about the aforementioned Ben Allen, of Ben Allen Road and "The Thing" fame. (See "The terrifying true story of The Thing, the Nashville apparition scarier than the Bell Witch," Oct. 27, 2011.) After scouring old books and newspapers, checking at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and spending an afternoon at the downtown public library's Nashville Room, I had started to wonder whether anyone in Nashville knew Allen had even existed, or cared.
The Masons do. They have Allen's hat in a glass case in their office. They have two portraits of him on the first floor — one in which he resembles a Masonic walrus, all whiskers, ceremonial medals and commemorative hat; the other in which his bushy mustache and beard are still a deep honey blond, his eyes twinkling with mischief.
They have a jewel-encrusted golden chalice that the men of the Scottish Rite had made from their own jewelry in his honor after he died. They have records of what degrees he received when. And they have a few personal items of his, such as his gold three-ridged ring, inscribed with his name on the inside.
Most astounding of all, they have the sword he made for U.S. Congressman James D. Richardson, who was House minority leader 1899-1903. It's a masterpiece of etched metal, with an ivory handle and fingertip-sized jewels on the hilt and scabbard. Its gleam and heft immediately inspire unwise thoughts of challenge and conquest — not to mention making a run for it — but I somehow refrained.
On top of that, they have Allen's Buddha statue and the story of the phantom circus. They also have their own stories about Ben Allen's séances, about how older Masons used to say they saw Allen and Richardson calling upon the dead in a specially designed room in the basement of the first Scottish Rite Temple. Yes, those stories have a huge hole — those old-timers would have to have seen Allen before he died in 1910, unless those séances worked a lot better than anyone knew. But it's nice to see that Allen's memory, and his sly spirit, are kept alive somewhere in this city.
I had expected to not be told much, if anything, about the Masons and their beliefs and philosophies. But I found gracious hosts who were happy to answer all of my questions, and to share a building they are rightly proud of. The reason for their openness is simple: the Grand Masonic Lodge, like all the best mysteries, only gives you more cause to wonder when you see it up close. As any great magician knows, you can show an outsider everything and still the secrets remain — hidden in plain sight.