THE painstaking reconstruction of a Sunderland building – brick by brick – will help lift the lid on a secret society, as SARAH STONER found out.
IN today's Internet-obsessed society, where news travels the world in seconds, there can be few groups who still enjoy the secrecy which surrounds the Freemasons.
Despite a history dating back 450 years, and an illustrious membership of kings and presidents, relatively little is publicly known about the Masonic Movement.
A 1million project to rebuild a former Sunderland Masonic Hall at Beamish Museum will, however, lift that veil of mystery a little.
It has taken eight years to accomplish, but the new exhibit will finally be unveiled on April 19 by the Duke of Kent – a Masonic Grand Master.
"The Masonic Hall must be one of the most intriguing and fascinating exhibits to open at Beamish," said Trish Hall, marketing manager for the museum.
"We've already had coach groups booking specifically to see it, and hundreds of enquiries as well. It will be the only Masonic temple permanently open to the public in Europe."
The new attraction, which originally stood in Park Terrace, now part of Toward Road, was built in 1869 for the St John's Lodge and was Sunderland's main Freemasonry centre for years.
By 1933, however, it was home to 17 lodges and bulging at the seams. A new base was therefore built at Burdon Road, leaving Park Terrace empty.
The Grade I listed temple was used as a warehouse for several years, but eventually fell into disrepair. By 1998, it was almost derelict and doomed to demolition.
Eric Heaviside, Assistant Provincial Grand Master for Durham, said: "We only heard about the plans at the last minute and our members immediately visited the site.
"We reached an agreement with the builder to save the ornate frontispiece of the hall just 24 hours before it was to be demolished. It was that close to being lost."
Dozens of photographs and drawings were made of the temple's frontage before it was dismantled, with each individual brick being measured and numbered.
The pieces were then stored until enough money was raised to fund the rebuilding. Beamish and the Provincial Grand Lodge of Durham shared the 1million bill.
"The frontage was painstakingly rebuilt brick by brick," said Trish. "The rest of the building was built behind it on an East-West axis, just as Masonic buildings ideally are."
Museum experts used an old photograph of the temple's interior to create an authentic look, complete with black and white marble floor and gothic fireplace.
Three impressive mid-18th century chairs, symbolic boards and original Masonic paintings, all donated by lodges around Britain, add to the authenticity.
"In addition, the building also houses other traditional Masonic rooms, including a Robing Room, Tyler's Room and a Museum Room upstairs," said Trish.
Hundreds of Freemasons will gather at Beamish on April 19 to celebrate the opening of the rebuilt Masonic Hall – donning ceremonial robes for a grand procession.
"We raised 500,000 towards the project and it's been a bit of a hard slog at times," said Mr Heaviside. "But it's all been very worthwhile in the end.
"The building has been done to the highest quality and it gives people the opportunity to see what a Masonic Hall looks like, as well as learning what goes on inside.
"It is the only purpose-built Masonic Hall within a museum in Europe and we are expecting people from all over the world to be interested in visiting."
The new Masonic exhibition is expected to open to visitors during the Easter school holidays, when specially-dressed guides will show people around.
"The hall shows the important role the Masons played in 19th and 20th century and unravels many of the mysteries and myths surrounding them," said Trish.
"So, if you've ever wondered why Mason's roll up their trouser legs, have a secret handshake or what they do in Masonic meetings, find out more at Beamish."
City's centre for Freemasons
SUNDERLAND has been at the centre of Freemasonry for centuries.
The first lodge formed in Sunderland was the Phoenix Lodge, which dates back to 1755.
The Queen Street Masonic Lodge, a Grade I listed building, was built in 1785 and is the country's oldest surviving Freemason's hall. It was home to the Phoenix Lodge.
In 1757, the Palatine Lodge was created, which met at a temple in Burdon Road, and by 1761, the St John's Lodge was underway too.
Park Terrace Masonic Hall was built for St John's Lodge in 1868 and was the main centre of Freemasonry in Sunderland.
By 1905, the Vedra Lodge was meeting regularly at Burdon Road, with members including top medical men and health administrators.
A new Masonic Hall, the Wearside Masonic Temple in Burdon Road, was built in 1932, after the popularity of Freemasonry led to overcrowding at Park Terrace.
The Civic Lodge was formed in 1941, with its meeting place a stone's throw from the Civic Centre. Past members included a director of social services and an ex-Tory councillor.
Today, there are 201 lodges and 10,000 Freemasons in the Province of Durham, which includes Sunderland.
The Park Terrace hall, last used as a Masonic meeting place about 1932, was later became a warehouse before falling into disrepair. It was demolished in 1998.
The Beamish scheme to rebuild the hall as an exhibit was adopted as the Millennium Project of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Durham.
Wearside Masonic Temple, a Grade II listed building, was put up for sale last year "due to relocation", with an asking price of about 650,000.
A long and much-debated history
THE origins of Freemasonry are the subject of great debate, although it is believed to be connected to the stone masons who built medieval cathedrals.
The first record of the "making" of an English Freemason dates from October 16, 1646, when antiquarian Elias Ashmole became a member during a lodge meeting at his father-in-law's home in Warrington, Cheshire.
Organised Freemasonry started in June 1717, when four London lodges formed themselves into a Grand Lodge. The first rule book was published in 1723.
By 1730, the Grand Lodge had more than 100 lodges in England and Wales under its control, with other lodges in Madrid and Calcutta.
A growing number of aristocrats and landed gentry started to seek admission and, in 1737, the first Royal Freemason was made – Frederick Lewis – son of King George II.
The popularity of the organisation led to the spread of British Freemasonry around the world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, from America to Africa.
Soon there were lodges and halls in most English towns, including those throughout the old County Durham. Indeed, in 1922, the Durham Grand Lodge had grown so much that it was granted its own coat of arms.
Today, Freemasonry under the United Grand Lodge of England is the UK's largest secular fraternal and charitable organisation.
It has more than 300,000 members working in more than 8,000 lodges throughout England and Wales and 30,000 more overseas.
* To learn more about the origins of Freemasonry, log on to www.grandlodge-england.org.uk