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Touring Sheets's Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire

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It's Sheets Week and we're celebrating Millard Sheets, the artist and architectural designer who dotted Southern California with beautiful modern Home Savings bank branches. Throughout the week, we'll be touring some of the Sheets buildings that still stand.

Exterior photos by Elizabeth Daniels; interior photos via Irwin Miller

The Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire is probably the most mysterious Millard Sheets building (and one of the more mysterious in LA). It's been on and off the market for years (currently seems to be off), and seems pretty hard to get inside--when we called to ask about a tour, we were told that we'd need a city permit to visit. According to a 1994 LA Times article, the building "housed National Guard troops during the 1992 riots and has been used for funerals of police officers." Who knows what secrets this place holds? Masons, obviously, are known for being pretty secretive. Either way, the building is super cool; we'll let Sheets tell you the story of what it is and how it got there:

The Scottish Rite cathedral was one of the most exciting projects I ever had anything to do with. It came to me in a strange way. The head of the Scottish Rite cathedral here in Los Angeles at the time. Judge Ellsworth Meyer, called me to ask me if I could go to dinner with a small group of people to discuss an "interesting subject." I said, "Well, are you sure I could enter into the discussion?" He said, "Yes, we think you can." I said, "Do you wish to discuss the subject matter?" He said, "No, not until dinnertime." Well, I went to dinner at the [Los Angeles] Athletic Club with him ?. They said, "We are going to build a new temple." They called it a "cathedral." I said, "Well, what kind of a cathedral?" They said, "Scottish Rite." I was a little dopey. I thought it might be Masonic, but I wasn't sure. I said, "Well, where is your old one?" I thought that might give me a clue, and they told me where it was, down on Flower Street, something like that. Then I knew that they were talking about a Masonic temple. They said, "We are trying to be very thorough before we go ahead with this job. We have met nine firms of architects, of which at least the principal men are members of our particular Masonry degree and also our particular temple. We've discussed the matter at length with each of them, and we've asked them for their idea of how they would approach this problem. You're the only one outside of the group that belong to the temple that we've interviewed. But we would like to discuss it with you ?." So they told me quite a bit about what has to be in a temple of this kind. I didn't dream that there was a huge auditorium and a huge dining room. The auditorium seats 3,000, and the dining room seats 1,500, and they have many lodge rooms and recreation rooms. It's a city, a tremendous thing ?. I said, "?I'd have to know a lot more about you. As a matter of fact, the first question I would put at the top of my list is, 'Why do you think you need to build a big temple? What's wrong with the one you've got?' I don't know anything about the one you've got, except that I've seen the outside and it looks horrible. But," I said, "that isn't the important thing. The important thing is why do you think you need a temple? Maybe the idea of Masonry isn't even practical today." They really looked so shocked at that! I said, "I have no idea, not being a Mason, but I certainly believe that you should really answer a lot of questions. I don't think it would make a damned bit of difference what I think you should do at this point, because I don't know, and I don't think any other designer or architect could tell you any better, unless of course they're active members and have a lot of strong feelings, which I don't have ?." As a matter of fact, I was very busy, and I suddenly realized that about four months had gone by. I thought perhaps I had frightened them away completely by asking them the twenty-five or more questions of why they thought they ought to build a temple. Then the phone rang and it was Judge Meyer, the head of the Scottish Rite. He said, "Well, we're ready to answer your questions." So we set up another dinner party, and it was an exciting evening. It was one of the really most exciting ones because they had done their homework. They had worked terribly hard on all of the questions and had, I thought, some imaginative answers. They were not in any way tying me or any other designer down, but they had some very good thoughts about the new relationship of Masonry to society and why they felt this was an important time to build the temple and why they wanted to truly represent the spirit of Masonry. So without further ado, I made many sketches, I think three different concepts, which I presented to a smaller committee that they had decided would be easier to operate with ?. I made the presentation of these three different concepts, from which they selected one. It was the one that we finally followed, but it grew considerably in the development, as most of these kinds of things do, both in character and in detail.

Well, I think I suggested to you that I was surprised by the tremendous number of things that had to be incorporated in this temple. First of all, the upper degrees of Masonry are given in an auditorium, and they are given in the form of plays. They have incredible costumes and magnificent productions of the basic concepts that are ethical and have at heart a religious depth, and they draw from many religions, as far as I understand. I'm not a Mason, but I do feel that it's a tremendous attempt toward the freedom of man as an individual, and the rights of man as an individual, and respect for various races and creeds. I won't say this is always obtained, but certainly that's been the spirit. They felt that they wanted to depict this in every form. That's the reason there's so much decoration involved in the temple. The huge mosaic on the exterior east end of the temple at that time was the largest mosaic I'd ever made. It starts out with the builders of the temple from the days of Jerusalem, and King Solomon, who built the temple, and Babylon. Then it jumps up to the Persian emperor, Zerubabel ?. I showed the importance of [Giuseppe] Garibaldi, the Mason who broke away from the Roman Catholic church because of what he felt was its limitations and dogmatism ?. Then there is King Edward VII in his Masonic regalia as one of the great grand masters. We had the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, which is part of the King Edward section. I think the final part of that mosaic shows the first grand master of California in his full regalia being invested in Sacramento. It's a kind of historical thing going way back to the ancient temple builders and coming right up through to actual California history, which the California sun at the top symbolizes.

...the concept of the sculpture along the south facade, which I worked in collaboration with Albert Stewart to design, and then he made all of the models — it seems to me there were eighty scale models, which I took to Rome and had carved by a very fine sculptor in solid travertine. These were, of course, eventually sent back and placed on the facade. And here again are all of the temple builders, each one representing a special builder going back to ancient Egypt and coming on through the time of King Solomon and the Persian emperor, up to and including George Washington. There are also Albert Pike, who was one of the very great men in the early part of the twentieth century or latter part of the nineteenth century, and Christopher Wren, who built the great cathedrals in England. The two St. Johns were interesting, because they were said to be patron saints, and they depicted two different meanings entirely. Then there's the Gothic builder, so it symbolizes the whole meaning of the building of the temple .

?The double-headed eagle, which was the symbol for the Scottish Rite, Albert Stewart designed, and I think it makes a stunning logo. We used it in four spots on the temple. Then all of the inscriptions which we did were carved in travertine, and the different insignias of the degrees are all parts of the actual rites themselves ?. On the inside, there are several sculptured and mosaic decorations on the interior of the auditorium. There's a large mural depicting the history of Masonry in California, starting with the first houses which were erected by Masons. It's all involved, and I can't remember all the details. There's also a large mural in the main reading room off the main library, which was not symbolic. It was the kind of thing I liked to do, a very interesting mood of some ancient trees, and it's a totally different type of mural. Then I did murals in the dining room. The temple is like a city. It has a huge auditorium where they hold performances for the degree. Then there are four lodge rooms upstairs, where the various blue lodges meet to give the lower degrees. There is a recreational floor that has nothing but library facilities and pool tables and a combination of reading room and card room. There is a very fine library, which we had a lot of fun designing. There are, of course, the locker rooms and all of the other things that make it a tremendous, big building. It's four stories above ground and one below. There is a huge dining room on the top floor that seats 1,500 people, where you get an excellent view of the city. It's all under the overhang of that big roof that extends over the balcony areas.

· Sheets Week [Curbed LA]