10/26/2019 11:03:00 AM Like most, volunteers keep this Masonic Temple alive
Donnette Beckett Herald and Review
DECATUR, Ill. (AP) — Up the stairs and through the sets of doors, come inside the Decatur Masonic Temple, an iconic structure that has commanded the corner of West William and North Church streets for over nine decades. The longevity is thanks in part to a loyal group of hard-working volunteers.
“The temple is a beautiful place that people are lucky to be in,” said Jim Chumbley.
Chumbley and a group of about 10 have donated their time and resources in restoring the old building.
Finished in 1929 at a cost $750,000, one of its donors was A.E. Staley, the titan of the A. E. Staley Manufacturing Co., and its cornerstone-laying ceremony was touted as the “greatest assemblage of Illinois Masons and kindred bodies ever brought together in this part of the state,” according to a March 1928 Decatur Daily Review article.
The large lounge area near the main lobby is dedicated to Staley, who provided $25,000. When Staley died in 1940, 500 gathered in the temple to listen to live audio of his funeral at First Presbyterian Church.
When the building opened its doors, Masonic and related lodges met at the temple several days a week. Its popularity remained the same throughout the years. “It wasn’t uncommon to show up here and there were hundreds of people,” Chumbley said. “That was 35 to 40 years ago.”
The building is approximately 70,000 square feet with an auditorium that seats more than 800 people and a stage. Two large dining rooms, a full kitchen and several meeting rooms add more opportunities for events.
“It was the largest location to bring people together in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” Chumbley said.
The designers of the temple utilized many creative and cutting-edge features of the time. “Almost every inch of this building has intricate details,” said Mindy Oakley. “If you look, there are details everywhere.”
Visitors sitting in any seat of the auditorium have a clear view and sound with good acoustics. “They were actually pretty smart in a lot of ways when they built this place,” Oakley said. “And there’s character here.”
The auditorium is one of the largest rooms in the building. It has been used on various occasions and events throughout the years, including community meetings, rap concerts and a circus. Because of the versatility and ornate features throughout the building, the venue is popular for weddings. “But we use it for anything,” Chumbley said.
“This was kind of like the Civic Center, before the Civic Center,” said volunteer Kim Barding.
The building also has a bit of mystery found throughout.
A rumor that the building is haunted has been an attraction for years. Throughout the year-long restoration, which included many days of lone work, the members of the groups said they have never been spooked by any spirits. “There are stories,” Barding said. “I’ve never personally seen anything.”
“If you have a tendency to get spooked, you’ll get spooked,” Oakley said.
Although the Masonic Temple was created for Masonic groups, it is no longer limited to members of the fraternal organization. “We’ll even take you into the lodge rooms to look around,” Oakley said about the once forbidden areas.
Despite the age, the building has some modern amenities, including security. “We worry about people’s safety,” Chumbley said. “We put a security system in. We will see every single person that goes in.”
The building in recent decades began to show its age. A hardship in 2018 was a leak that caused damage. “It was a 4-inch water line that froze and burst and flooded the lowest level of the building,” Chumbley said. “It created some humidity issues.”
Last year, Chumbley and his friends, family and lodge brothers began to tackle the damages. The group began working on the repairs and adding dehumidifiers to dry up the affected rooms. Many hours were spent repairing plumbing, removing flaking paint, repairing walls and adding fresh paint. “And we’re not done yet,” Oakley said.
Steve Hornback, Chris Whitney, Chip Richards, Chad Richards, Chris Malone and Chumbley are the current board members.
One of the goals was to keep it as close to history as possible. The original ornate trim, high ceilings, large windows and marble and stone floors give the temple unique details not many can duplicate.
A few pieces needed updating, including the lighting. “We replaced the sconce lights with dimmable LED lights,” Chumbley said about the eight large ornate chandeliers in the auditorium. “There is 48 bulbs in each one of the chandeliers.”
Now the building is often empty, with only a couple of bi-weekly meetings a month. A few groups left temporarily but have returned since repairs have been completed. The love for the building is what draws the volunteers back after work and on weekends to continue the repairs.
“You don’t see things like this built anymore,” Oakley said. “There is not a lot left in the city that look like this and open to the public.”