For as long as we can remember, the mysterious, windowless lodge building has stood on its prominent Wilshire site, an hermetic, masculine balance to the social, feminine Ebell Club just across the boulevard.
Designed by Southern California symbolist extraordinaire Millard Sheets, he of the Home Savings mosaic murals that sold the regional lifestyle to passing motorists and prudent savers, the Scottish Rite Temple (1961) is Southern California’s last great Masonic hall, a Gesamtkunstwerk from its exterior mosaics, instructional texts, high relief figural sculptures and giant unlit braziers to the unknown mysteries within.
Sadly, it is also a block-long grave marker for a once-thriving fraternal organization that failed to inspire new generations of free thinkers. Rites ceased in 1993, and litigious neighbors and insufficient parking made it unsuitable as a secular event space.
Enter the Marciano brothers, designer jeans moguls, contemporary art collectors, seekers of vast amounts of square footage in the heart of Los Angeles. They picked the white elephant up for $8 Million to become what was initially presented as a private museum.
Flash forward several years, and that private museum is now open to the public, with timed, free ticketed entry Thursday-Saturday.
Which is how we found ourselves at long last stepping into Millard Sheets’ most mysterious commission, intent on seeking out elements of the design that have survived architect Kulapat Yantrasast’s transformation of the Temple and its dedicated theater, dining room, library and myriad club rooms into spaces suited for showing big, new and site-specific artwork.
It was immediately obvious, gazing up at the west facade, that the building has been stripped of much of its Masonic context. The ghosts of a lost gold metal text on the theme of Faith, Hope and Charity were visible between symbols of the Mason’s craft. (Google streetview captured the lost text nicely in 2009.)
One of the gracious attendants explained that Millard Sheets’ son Tony had come and removed the golden letters, as well as a number of interior mosaics, and that they were now held in the artist’s archive. But we could see one large Sheets mosaic inside and another on the eastern exterior wall.
That east facade is Sheets’ largest mosaic commission, a history of Masonry from the ancient world to gold rush Sacramento.
Here we go, then, on a preservation-minded photo tour of L.A.’s newest contemporary art space, featuring reclaimed Masonic theatrical backdrops, high art water fountains and a forest of hidden creatures. Behold!
Over the first gallery hover two huge celestial lamps, their symbolism obscure.
Step to the right, behind a half wall, to see the handsome Wilshire Boulevard entry, decommissioned due to security concerns.
Stripes of pebbly gold tiles stand out against the gorgeous stone walls
Just past the lobby, a carpet of jewel-toned terrazzo flanks a bay of be-compassed elevators.
Peel an eye for those artful water fountains, both gilded and tiled, but none of them working.
The vast first floor once contained the 1800-seat theater, where 33rd Degree Freemasons gathered to watch their esoteric history represented through elaborate theatrical productions. As befit the grandest lodge in the world’s motion picture capitol, the Wilshire Boulevard Masons didn’t skimp on stagecraft, make up or costuming.
It’s an odd thing, but when the Masons sold the building, they didn’t deliver it vacant. The new owners discovered a great quantity of abandoned stuff, some of it even older than the building, all of it odd. These bits and pieces have been retained and some of them displayed, in various states of integrity.
The inaugural temporary exhibition in the now-gutted theater is a multimedia installation by Jim Shaw, who made his name as a curator of thrift store paintings. Here, he presents a number of enormous theatrical backdrops hung at angles, their already cryptic significance amped up with the addition of iconic cartoonish characters and a dramatic light display.
Enter the International House of Pain and to your left, on an enormous panel, damned souls writhe in a hell of their own making.
This spectacular vintage piece is left unaltered, and if one stands in just the right spot, the viewer’s shadow appears like the Spectre of the Brocken to menace the writhing forms.
In the center of the space, a super-colossal George Washington vacuums up flattened fellows through a vintage Hoover attachment emerging from his loins.
Look out for the scenic artists’ stamps and signatures.
Esoteric genealogists on the internet enjoy speculating that Barbara Bush might be the secret daughter of occultist Aleister Crowley, and these two colorful characters appear in an intimate shadow play behind an abandoned mini mall.
At right, in a tidy glass storefront space, vintage Masonic character hairpieces are displayed alongside weird rugs imagined by the artist.
It’s up to you to figure out which are new and which Masonic. (Hint: look for the dust of decades.)
It’s here that contemporary art makes its strongest comment on the historic space: through the museum window is a painting of a stylish mid-century couple pausing with their baby’s carriage in front of a jewelry store window. The invisible child is of the generation that abandoned Masonry and its philosophical pursuits, and civic dedication to building up Los Angeles, dooming the Scottish Rite Temple to irrelevance.
The scene changed as a spotlight came on somewhere behind, casting the ominous shadow of a shopping cart, eternal symbol of consumerism and of L.A.’s 40,000+ homeless souls, onto the scrying glass shop window. Fate is a mother.
But the clock was ticking (visitors are only allowed two hours in the parking lot) and we knew there was one large-scale Millard Sheets mosaic somewhere in the building. We were determined to find it, and eventually we did. At the very back of the upstairs gallery, in a gutted white room filled with big paintings and sculptures, a false wall hides a forest scene set in a stunning expanse of black glass tesserae.
Step behind the wall and crane your neck. In spite of the ill-placed track lighting and awkward space, this beautiful, rhythmic piece with its lively animals is well worth seeking out.
The historically minded will also want to seek out the small exhibition gallery on the mezzanine. Here are relics of this lodge, and artifacts of older Los Angeles lodges, with a focus on theatrics and publications. We suspect these are leftovers from the short-lived Masonic museum of the early ‘oughts. The collection would benefit from more informed interpretation: one of the scant labels incorrectly states that the original Masonic Hall on the Plaza downtown has been demolished.
Artifacts include a theatrical maquette which could benefit from a little attention from the restorer.
A gilded mosaic globe post, obviously from the Sheets studio.
A set of racially insensitive figural busts.
Just a few of those that originally offered inspiration for theatrical character transformations.
Novel head gear and character sheets.
A banner from the oldest Los Angeles temple (still standing, darn it!).
And when the sun is just right, the stained glass surrounding the reversed, double-headed eagle, one of the original building’s few sources of exterior light, is just lovely.
Less appealing to preservation-minded visitors is the multi-screen video installation “Ledge” by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can duck beneath a cramped awning to watch helium-voiced characters on a mock ghost hunt run amok inside the original building, before the historic spaces were gutted and the artifacts offered to artists who the Marcianos collect. While we wanted to see the lost space, we could only take a couple of minutes of the intentionally irritating show.
But that’s not all! An unexpected Millard Sheets discovery awaited us in the bookshop: an expressionistic forest mural, only partially obscured by stock displays. (It would be great if some kind of guard were installed here to protect the paint from abrasion.)
Confident that we’d found all the relics and artifacts on view, we made our way out into the blinding Los Angeles sun, puzzling over the tough experience of finally getting inside a fascinating landmark, and finding nothing there.
Because the Scottish Rite Temple that Millard Sheets, a layman and a genius, created for the Freemasons of our city no longer exists. The walls still stand, with a few of the integrated artworks designed to illuminate the teachings of the masonic craft, but all context has been carved away.
The temple, small t, is now a shell that contains the experiences and aspirations of the new Los Angeles. It represents some positive things: the patronage by the wealthy of working artists and a social space whose usefulness is yet to be revealed.
But it is also a promise broken, as cryptic objects once the subject of deep study and revelation are openly displayed for the uninitiated. It is the masons (small m) who failed their temple. Now it’s up to the new Los Angeles to make something good of what’s still here.