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Historic England announces £180,000 repairs funding for Sunderland's 230-year-old Phoenix Hall

One of Sunderland’s most important historic buildings is set for a raft of vital repairs thanks to a £180,000 grant from Historic England.

Wednesday, 13th April 2022, 4:55 am

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Phoenix Hall in the East End is the oldest surviving purpose-built masonic lodge still in use by the Freemasons in England.

The Grade I-listed Georgian building, in Queen Street East, has been in continuous use by Freemasons since it was built in 1784-5.

Now dwarfed by three high-rise tower blocks, Phoenix Hall is a bridge to Sunderland’s past – when the area lay at the heart of the then town was growing in wealth thanks to the trade in coal, timber and shipbuilding.

Temple or Lodge Room, east wall to left showing the Worshipful master's chair- with south wall to right.

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Maria Carballeira, Historic England’s Partnership Team Architect for the North East, said: “We are delighted to help fund repairs to Phoenix Hall, which is such an important part of Sunderland’s past and has a key role to play in its future.

"This building has been a constant in the city’s changing landscape for over 230 years. Our grant will help open new opportunities for people to find out more about their local heritage and try craft building skills as part of the HAZ Heritage Skills Training Programme.”

Paul Swansbury, director of the Queen Street Masonic Temple, added: “We are extremely grateful for the support and advice from Historic England in relation to the repair, maintenance and planning for our Grade I-Listed building. It has been invaluable.”

Today, Phoenix Hall is dwarfed by neighbouring tower blocks.

Although the Hall has been extended and altered over the last 237 years, its original structure and interior has remained remarkably intact, with the original organ, ceremonial chairs and furnishings still in place.

Freemasonry was an important and influential national movement during the 18th Century when the Hall was built.

Sunderland had some of the first purpose-built masonic halls after London and funding from the local lodges paid for major building projects in the city such as the Exchange Buildings (High Street East) and the first Wearmouth Bridge.

The new injection of funding from Historic England will enable owners, the Queen Street Heritage Trust, to carry out vital repairs to the roof, joinery and masonry, as well as the interior including the distinctive chequered floor.

A group learning about Phoenix Hall's history.

The work, part of Sunderland’s Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) initiative will start in May. The repair project will offer opportunities for local people to learn more about the building and its history, as well as take part in ‘hard hat’ tours and practical workshops lead by expert craftspeople.

Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate the nation’s spectacular historic environment.

Phoenix Hall is part of the Sunderland’s Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ), led by Historic England, Sunderland City Council and partners.

David Dorward, director of the Queen Street Heritage Trust, said: “As a charitable trust we hold Phoenix Hall in care for the many Masonic members and the wider community.

The banqueting hall, view from south.

"We are delighted to be part of the Heritage Action Zone, led by Historic England, here in Sunderland. This partnership has brought vital funding which will enable much needed repairs to the fabric of the building and ensure it can continue to be used by the community, as its builders envisaged 237 years ago.”

Peter McIntyre, executive director of City Development from Sunderland City Council, added: “Preserving old buildings as well as leading the development of new ones is key for Sunderland.

“We have some wonderful historic properties in the city – the Masonic Temple being one – and I’m delighted to see that funding has been secured to breathe new life into the building, the latest in a long line of old buildings that are being restored as part of the HAZ.”

The history of Phoenix Hall

Built for £600 by local mason John Bonner, Phoenix was funded by fellow Lodge members when their original building in Sunderland’s Vine Street was damaged by fire. Phoenix Hall rose from the ashes of the previous Lodge, giving rise to its name.

It is still used by the Phoenix Lodge Freemasons but is also open to community groups and members of the public to enjoy.

Freemasonry was a highly important and influential national movement, whose 18th century aspirations are clearly embodied in the design of Phoenix Hall.

The hall originally consisted of a rectangular lodge room – or temple – with a small room to either side under a sloping roof known as the east and west pents.

The Temple, of lodge room, is largely unchanged since 1785. It’s harmonious proportions are based on the golden ratio, a concept well known in Freemasonry.

The building has been extended and altered throughout its history, with a large addition in1890 and another in 1923 when the west pent was removed.

However, the lodge room has changed very little and it is a remarkable survival, including the original organ of 1785.

Phoenix Hall is one of only two Grade I-listed buildings in Sunderland, highlighting that it is of exceptional interest, as part of just 2.5% of all listed buildings in the country.

Freemasonary in Sunderland and the North East

Phoenix Hall is a vital part of Sunderland’s history and marks the importance of free masonry to the North East. It was one of the earliest purpose-built masonic halls in England, demonstrating the popularity and prominence of Freemasonry in the region.

It opened in 1785, just nine years after London’s Grand Lodge finished the first masonic hall in England in 1775.

Sunderland's Freemasons were originally called King George's Lodge; after their first masonic meeting place was devastated by fire in 1783, they rebuilt it and renamed themselves Phoenix Lodge. 'Reborn from the ashes' and opened in 1785, Phoenix Hall is said to be a replica of the first building and is the oldest masonic hall still used for its original purpose in the country.

The Freemasons played a significant civic role in Sunderland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They led the construction and funding of many building projects including the Exchange Buildings (High Street East) and the first Wearmouth Bridge, which was vital for the economic and physical development of the city.