Ask McGehee: What is the story behind that Egyptian temple downtown?

What Mobilians have most recently called “The Temple Downtown” is currently an event venue but was created as Mobile’s Scottish Rite Cathedral, left, in 1921. Masonic orders were booming in the early 20th century, and city directories of the era contain lengthy lists of such organizations.

The Scottish Rite, or more accurately, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, had obtained the former St. Francis Street Baptist Church in 1909 when that congregation moved to Government Street and was renamed First Baptist Church. (Ironically enough, the original congregation had been Mobile’s Second Baptist Church, but that’s another story.)

The organization spent nearly $10, 000 to remodel the former church auditorium into a Masonic hall with meeting rooms and a new kitchen. A decade later, the group hired architect George B. Rogers to design a much more elaborate and exotic structure. The corner property to the east was obtained for additional frontage.

In 1922, the new Scottish Rite Cathedral was constructed in an exotic Egyptian motif, complete with a pair of busty sphinxes created by sculptor Allen Barr. Its massive central auditorium was three times larger than any in the city and was planned to be offered free of charge to visiting conventions. Since 1996, the building has been an events space.

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Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.

Unique Architecture

Rogers created Mobile’s only Egyptian Revival structure, featuring tapering stucco walls, which rise 60 feet to rooftop obelisks disguising chimneys. The tall entryways are patterned after the Gateway of Ptolemy III at Karnak and lead into a central auditorium measuring 120 feet by 74 feet.

According to an article in the Mobile Register in 1922, the auditorium would be available “free of charge for public occasions. When visiting conventions are to be entertained by the city, here is this hall with nearly three times the seating capacity of any other hall in the city.”

The upper two floors were reserved for Masonic meetings as well as “music rooms especially planned for the musical effects desired in the work of the lodges.” Stairs led from the third floor to a tiled roof garden measuring 96 feet by 120 feet, with a raised terrace at one end. The space could be tented for use in the summer months and offered “a magnificent view of all Mobile.”

While the architect chose to spare no expense on the building, he showed his practical side in preserving the southwestern corner of the old church. Seeing that it was structurally sound, Rogers merely incorporated it into the new Cathedral, and its buttressed walls are still visible today.

Later that fall, the tomb of Egypt’s King Tut was discovered, throwing the world into Egyptmania. The design of Mobile’s new Scottish Rite Cathedral could not have been timed better. In the same decade, San Antonio’s Masons would dedicate a Greek Revival Cathedral, while Indianapolis would end the decade with the nation’s largest – a $2.5 million neo-Gothic Cathedral, featuring a 54-bell carillon and an Elizabethan ballroom.

The membership numbers for Masonic organizations began to decline in the 1970s, and by the 1990s, Mobile’s Scottish Rite could no longer maintain their grand St. Francis Street location. It was sold in 1996 and dubbed “The Temple, ” perhaps to stem any confusion with another Cathedral located a block south on Claiborne Street. 

by Tom McGehee

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