|From The History of Mason's Hall, 1887|
Richmond's Masonic Hall can be seen as the town's first assembly hall. Although built by a private organization with a membership that tracked closely with the city's business and political leadership, the hall, as the building changed over time, provided the city with a place for staging plays and shows and holding meetings. The masonic ritual was kept separate from the public use, mostly by restricting the public use to the ground floor. Masonic Hall, in spite of its complex early building history and later alterations, clearly joins Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall and New York's Federal Hall as an exemplar of the eighteenth-century tradition of the urban hall.
What is a "hall"?
|Carpenters' Hall, Philadelphia, 1774|
|Old City Hall, Philadelphia, 1791.|
|Federal Hall, New York, New York, 1788|
|Charleston County Courthouse (1790-92)|
|Ripon Town Hall, Yorkshire, England, 1799.|
In many cases the halls proclaimed their civic role by inclusion of a central pedimented pavilion crowned by a carefully proportioned bell-tower, that spoke (rather literally) of the regulatory oversight of the civic authorities. This was the case at the Masonic Hall. Throughout the 1790s, there was no other building in Richmond with an appropriate tower from which a bell could be sounded to signal important events or emergencies. In 1793, the Governor loaned a bell belonging to the Capitol to be hung in the cupola of the Masonic Hall for the public purpose of calling alarms and signaling the opening and closing of the market.
Masons’ Hall, completed in 1787, must have been an impressive structure that dominated the nearby Market Square during the last years of the eighteenth century. According to one source, Masons’ Hall was “the most popular place in the city.” In Richmond during the 1780s, and until the brick Market Hall was completed in 1794, there was no place for public and private gatherings other than the church, the courthouse, and the temporary statehouse. According to one history, the large room on the ground floor was in frequent use as a place of amusement, for public and political meetings, and for religious worship. The delegates from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention are said to have met in Masons’ Hall before travelling to Philadelphia in 1787. "Here the Hustings Court of the city was held when the General Court was sitting in the courthouse, and John Marshall as recorder was having his first judicial experience" [Historical Sketch].
"Three times a week “Monsieur Capers” instructed the ‘youth of both sexes in the most approved court dances, and the latest and most popular figures and steps;’ here the citizens assembled to instruct their delegates to the convention on the absorbing topic of the adoption of rejection of the Federal Constitution; here grand balls were given on the 4th of July and also on ‘the 22nd of February, the anniversary of the birth of the illustrious General George Washington, whose exertions, under the smile of heaven, have been productive of freedom, happiness, and glory to a grateful people;’ here the Hustings Court of the city was held when the General Court was sitting in the courthouse, and John Marshall, as recorder, was having his first judicial experience; and here, on Sunday afternoon, ‘dissenting ministers’ proclaimed the new era of religious freedom, and preached the gospel of Christ“ [“Ancient Lodge Celebrates Anniversary in Old Hall.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 30 October, 1906, 3].
|Williamsburg Masonic Lodge, (c 1775) photographed in the early 20th century,|
Masonic lodges typically began by meeting in the public rooms of taverns and coffee houses. When they were ready to build a hall, Masonic lodges frequently chose to partner with a tenant or tenants to help pay for and maintain the building. The Williamsburg Lodge No. 6 appears to have occupied its own building by 1775. The small, T-shaped frame structure measured 16 by 32 feet. It held a lodge room on the second floor and rental apartment on the first [Paul Buchanan and Catherine Savedge, "Masonic Lodge Block 11 Building 3 (Not Owned) Colonial Lot #13", 1971].
One confirmation that the upper floors were added to an existing foundation is the exterior projection of the brick basement wall proud of the weatherboard above, resulting in a substantial ledge covered with a sloping wood water table. The completed building employs an architectural compositional device, invisible on the interior, of a slightly projecting pavilion containing the three bays and not closely corresponding to the entrance hall inside. The pavilion projects to align with the face of the brick basement, which displays no projection. This suggests a possibility that the pavilion was not part of the original design, but was added on top of the ledge when the building was completed in wood.
|Mason's Hall (Virginia Department of Historic Resources). The lighting rod attached to the cupola shows up in early photographs.|
It appears that the hall was altered very little in first 80 or more years after its construction. The hipped roof, cupola, and weathervane are clearly depicted in the panoramic photograph taken in 1865 from the nearby top of Church Hill (above). It is clear that today's cupola and cornice are the same as those shown on the Virginia Mutual Fire Assurance Society policy sketch from 1802.
The principal façade shown on this drawing incorporated five window bays. The windows appear to have been filled with eight over twelve-light sashes (referred to as the "old 8 by 10 lights" in 1906). The basement still is lit by early six-over-nine-light sashes.
Today, the building has larger four-over-four sash windows, a door with sidelights, and a porch added in 1872, but the dentil cornice, pediment, cupola, and many other original features remain. The interior layout has been unchanged, although many of the furnishings and architectural fittings, including wainscots and ceiling decoration, have changed.
|Basement, Mason's Hall, Richmond VA, Historic American Building Survey, 1934.|
|First Floor, Mason's Hall, Richmond VA, Historic American Building Survey, 1934. The exterior ledge on top of the basemen wall can be seen, as well as the projecting pavilion.|
|Second Floor, Mason's Richmond VA, Historic American Building Survey, 1934.|
In the early years the hall was in regular use. Since there was no Presbyterian Church in the city before 1812, the Rev. John Rice preached to the members if that denomination regularly in the Masonic Hall [Thomas P. Atkinson; “Richmond and Her People as they were in 1810, 11, and 12,” Richmond Whig 47:66 (18 August 1868) 1]. In 1808, Captain Price’s Artillery Company celebrated the Fourth of July and “partook of a soldier’s dinner at the Mason’s Hall, at which the utmost hilarity prevailed, [many] TOASTS were drunk with much enthusiasm, music, and the discharge of cannon” [(Richmond) Enquirer, 8 July 1808, 3].
|Benjamin West, Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple, exhibited in Mason's Hall in 1845. The monumental 10' by 15' painting must have been shown in one of the upper lodge rooms, due to its size and the difficulty of fitting it in the basement room.|
|Detail from the 1865 panorama of the city of Richmond looking west from Church Hill [Library of Congress]. The cupola of Mason's Hall is center left. The market and its bell tower is seen behind it.|
|Contemporary Photograph of Mason's Hall from 1906 article concerning the fire in the adjacent building [Richmond Times-Dispatch, 18 Dec. 1906, 14].|
Detail from 1886 Sanborn Map, showing Mason’s Hall at upper left. This is the earliest detailed map.
The Lodge decided to update the building in 1872. The windows were enlarged and given cornices. A new door with sidelights and transom was added was added at the main entry. The doorway was sheltered by a new, shallow, three-bay, Greek Revival porch with two fluted Doric columns flanked by antae and surmounted by a an Ionic entablature and a shallow pediment. The basement windows do not appear to have been altered. On the interior, the railing on the staircase was replaced, wainscot added, flooring renewed, and a central heating plant installed to replace the stoves used previously.
This work was detailed in an article dated November 5, 1872 in the Richmond Whig. According to a later article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the reason for the repairs in that year was a fire in a neighboring building [Richmond Times-Dispatch, 18 December 1906, 14].
Masons Hall should be saved. It is in dire need of repair and restoration. Preliminary estimates exceed $2.0 million. It should be restored and made available to the public so future generations may visit this exciting and important structure and learn about those who served freedom and tolerance during times this nation was born and strived to survive. Masons Hall 1785, a Charitable Foundation, was established as a tax-exempt foundation by Richmond Circuit Court Judge James B. Wilkinson to preserve Masons Hall. For additional information, visit the links on the side of this page. To make a tax-deductible contribution and help us Save Masons’ Hall, please click here. All donations go directly to preserving this historic structure.