One of the most surprisingly opulent places is in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Over the winter holiday, I drove up to the town north of Oklahoma City to visit the Scottish Rite Temple, an ornate, over-the-top mammoth of a building highly decorated with lush furnishings and arcane Masonic symbols. As you can see from the image above, it’s quite imposing, even more so since it is surrounded by single level homes, the termination of a road jutting off from downtown.
The temple was built in 1919, but its history goes back to a little before that. The cornerstone for the first Masonic building in Guthrie was laid in 1899, but the Masons moved into the current location after the capital of the state itself moved. Guthrie was originally where the new Oklahoma, getting statehood in 1907, set up its government, at a time when the town was the second largest city in the state. However, in a move involving a rather notorious incident where the state seal may or may not have been stolen, the capital was changed to Oklahoma City. The capitol building that remained in Guthrie was acquired by the Masons and incorporated into their new structure. The original legislative hall still remains.
Our tour started in the atrium, a stunning central hall with high ceilings from which there is the soft glow from stained glass and chandeliers. Every room in the temple was built to meticulously mimic a historic period of architecture or culture, and the atrium is a tribute to the Roman Empire. At 190 feet long and 52 feet wide, it certainly gives an air of awe, and the sleek marble makes it feel like a cousin to the temples of Rome.
The staircases at the ends of the atrium reminded me of Grand Central or other historic train stations, especially with the old clock ticking above.
We then entered the huge theatre, where the Masons perform the different degrees. I’m not really sure what that entails, but there were several Biblical-looking sets around the stage. I will also probably never get to see it, because even if women get to attend, they have to sit in an above area where they can’t see the action. However, I did get to hear the pipe organ, which was programmed to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, which is really the only song an organ needs to play. Like the atrium, the theatre has a Roman style to it, and there are 1,760 seats, so it’s quite impressive. All 5,376 pipes of the Kimball organ are in an arch above the stage.
Upstairs we visited the Pompeiian Room, a tribute to that city drowned in ash. The columns and friezes all have detailed painted patterns and the benches and chairs are models of ones originally carved from ivory and onyx. The rugs are from Ireland, but perhaps the camel hair in the wool fits the theme. My camera turned them all into blurs of light, but in the center of each stained glass window was a Masonic symbol.
The Assyrian Room was also heavy on the ancient world-inspiration. The chandeliers were designed to resemble the fire pots the Assyrians used back around 700 BC to heat their homes, and the upper edges of the room’s walls were even painted to appear singed by smoke. There were horse heads on the top of the columns and Assyrian sphinxes by the dark fireplace.
The Crystal Room was a gorgeous interpretation of 18th century English design, with its name taken from the Czech crystal chandeliers hanging from the towering ceiling. Every room of the temple seemed to have a sprawling, finely woven rug, but this one was the largest and apparently weighs 1,000 pounds. The rug had to arrive by train and be carried in twice by workers (the first time it was facing the wrong direction). This is back when Oklahoma was still a mess of a state, with dirt, dust, and oil derricks sprouting up everywhere, even right in front of the capitol building. To think of all this fit-for-royalty design arriving by train from the coasts is just crazy. Even now, Oklahoma isn’t exactly known for having lavish homes (with the exception of certain oil barons), and the Scottish Rite Temple is like finding a Fabergé egg in the carton of eggs you got at the grocery store.
The Rose Room is sort of a companion space to the Crystal Room, also done in the 18th century English style, although on a less grand scale. The stained glass in its windows was originally in the first Masonic temple in Guthrie, and had more symbols. The temple was dense with symbols, with two-head eagles and rules and compasses everywhere. If the chandelier in this picture looks slightly askew, it was designed that way, for a reason I couldn’t quite understand. Apparently it was a popular thing to make your guests feel like the room was moving back in the 18th century.
The “social promenade” (I love that term) at the top had views to the atrium and was in an Italian Renaissance style.
I loved the Writing Room, in a 17th century English style. Some of the chairs were made extra long for taller men. Were the men especially tall in Oklahoma in the early 1900s? This is where the Masons would write letters home while they were at the temple, although the room doesn’t get much use now, sadly. At least they haven’t put in computer outlets!
If I loved the Writing Room, I was absolutely infatuated with the library. In a Gothic style, it looked like something you’d find in Oxford, except for the cowboys and Indians on the pillars (one of the few Western touches in the building). There were literary quotes on the wall and Masonic texts in the cabinets. Our guide said there was also a secret room above the library where the librarian would have once stayed.
More old world elegance was in store with the Blue Room, which is also where many of the Masonic ceremonies take place (which is why there is an altar in the middle of the room).
Back downstairs, we entered the Egyptian Room, which was actually a 300-seat theatre. All the painting was done with pigments blended with egg whites, as the Egyptians did in their temples. (Our guide said the theatre had a rather awful smell the summer it was painted.) The curtain is from 1899, another carryover from the first Guthrie temple.
It was strange to go back out into the world from the Scottish Rite Temple, as if I had been time traveling to other countries and places, with odd symbols following me like a slightly off dream. If you ever find yourself in Guthrie, definitely pay the temple a visit. You will not be disappointed!