Completed in 1873, the Masonic Temple in the center of Philadelphia serves as the meeting place for more than two dozen Freemason lodges

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An occult society playing a hand in major American history events that’s run by a cabal of ex-U.S. presidents who communicate with compasses and cryptic symbols?

There are plenty of myths and speculation about Freemasons.

But the folks behind Philadelphia’s Masonic Temple really, really don’t want you to think anything weird is going on in the striking, cathedral-esque building just north of City Hall.

“If we were a secret society, we wouldn’t have this building prominently displayed in the middle of a major city,” said Michael McKee, executive director of the Masonic Library and Museum of Pa. “Either that, or we’re horrible at keeping secrets.”

Hmm. Sounds like what someone good at keeping secrets would say.

Let’s clear up one misconception: Non-Masons are absolutely allowed inside the Philadelphia building, McKee emphatically noted. The temple is open for tours, weddings, corporate events and even the occasional reporter who wants to know more about the inner-workings of a downtown Norman-style architectural landmark.

Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn

Billy Penn toured the building this spring alongside WHYY’s Movers & Makers production crew, and there’s a lot to see inside the stylized halls where Masons have performed their not-so-secret rituals for nearly 150 years.

Freemasonry is not a religion. It’s a men’s-only fraternity that’s modeled after medieval stonemasons, who used symbols to identify and communicate with each other. It dates back to 18th century England, but today in the U.S., each state manages its own lodges. Nationwide membership has declined 75% since the 1950s.

Philly’s temple is owned by a Freemason trust. Completed in 1873, the building at 1 N. Broad St. serves as the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania, as well as the meeting place for 28 other city lodges.

From the outside, the 19th century structure can feel uninviting. Designed by architect James H. Windrim, the granite and syenite exterior has ornamentation similar to City Hall. It appears oversized and ominous, as if it were larger than the land it sits on.

Inside, there’s more than meets the eye — and a lot you won’t find on a traditional tour, including a hidden network of rafters, a plaster “death mask,” and a warning about ice cream.

Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn

Ancient halls and secret rafters

The Masonic Temple’s main draw are the detailed interiors of the archaic grand halls.

Of the seven, Egyptian Hall is the crowd favorite, according to John Minott, masonic associate and tour guide.

Occasionally they’ll have to shut down one of the halls for repairs, and “Egyptian Hall is the only one they snarl at,” he said. “‘It’s the only reason I came here,’” Minott quoted visitors as saying. “You can tell them Norman Hall is off, and they go ‘OK that’s fine, there’s six others.’”

The halls are rife with symbolism — references to disciplines like geometry, civilizations as old as ancient Babylon, and of course, plenty of squares and compasses.

Another thrill can be found in the rafters above the halls.

Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn

McKee, the museum director, said few visitors have been up there. From the upper floor of the temple, a ladder takes you into a dark opening that leads to a series of clanking metal catwalks.

There’s an incongruous hand-painted wooden sign that looks a century old.

“NOTICE,” it reads. “DO NOT LET Ice Cream Tubs Stand On This PLATFORM BY ORDER OF THE [ILEGIBLE].”

Pass through an industrial door to reach a space where light pours in from below: you’re atop the stained glass windows that dome the temple’s halls.

The area is dingy. It’s an attic, after all. There are motors that lower chandeliers and other contraptions. But being there gives you a sense of the labyrinth below — and dispels the idea that it’s hiding secrets.

Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn

The south tower, once Philly’s highest point

The pandemic shutdown allowed the temple to do much-needed renovations inside the building, and gave staff the opportunity to create virtual tours of some lesser-seen areas.

Like the temple’s south tower, which was once the highest point in town before City Hall was built two decades later.

The tower once held massive tanks that gathered rainwater for the building. Journeying up the winding cast iron staircase, you can still see the scrawls of workers who carved their names into the stone.

The narrow staircase eventually gives way to a small opening to the roof, bringing you eye-level with the bottom of the City Hall clock tower.

Unfortunately, this isn’t part of the official temple tour — too old a staircase, with too many risks. (The building isn’t without tragic incidents. in the 1960s, two people fell to their deaths while changing light bulbs on a second floor landing.)

Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn

Scrolls, swords, and a ‘death mask’

Back on the ground level, next to what’s known as the Franklin Room, is the museum, which holds a large collection of artifacts both Masonic and non.

The most famous items belonged to the most famous Masons: George Washington’s masonic apron, Ben Franklin’s masonic sash.

Also on display: all sorts of scrolls and swords, the gavel used to lay the cornerstone of City Hall, and oddities that fall into the category of “old Philly stuff,” like a piece of 19th century water pipe.

Glass casings that extend into the halls show off a menagerie of everyday items that were significant to the temple’s members, from gongs to tea sets to tableware. “If you know anybody who likes plates, we have a lot of plates,” McKee said.

Michael Comfort, who oversees the library at the temple, said Masonic artifacts that come in from all over the globe are verified, and occasionally also appraised.

Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn

In the basement, past a network of pipes and service boxes, sit the temple’s private archives.

Not open to the public, the archive is home to thousands of historic artifacts. If you want to mine for cabalic secret plots, you might begin here with files full of old coins, tokens, badges, warrants, legal documents and various ledgers.

Oh, and the “death mask” of a famous Mason.

Death masks are plaster castings of a person’s face taken after their death. The practice was considered less weird in the late 19th century than it is today.

Archivist Michael Laskowski identified one in the basement as the mask of grand treasurer Thomas R. Patton, adding, “It actually has a hook on the back so it can be hung up for display.”

Scroll down for more pics, and dive deeper in the Movers & Makers special episode, “The Masonic Temple in Philadelphia.”

Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn
Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn
Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn
Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn
View from the temple’s roof Credit: Max Marin / Billy Penn
‘The Bond’ by James West (2017). Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were both Freemasons. Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
DCIM100MEDIADJI_0096.JPG Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...