District residents are pretty familiar with temple architecture, whether they realize it or not. Several of the iconic monuments on the National Mall are associated closely with classical temple designs. The Lincoln Memorial, for instance, is lined with Doric columns, just like the temple at Paestum. The Jefferson Memorial’s façade closely mirrors the Pantheon. The neoclassical elements of D.C. architecture are part of the District’s identity. However, it is rare to see temple-style architecture in the District being used for its original purpose. Who builds a temple in 1907?
The Freemasons, that’s who.
The building we now call the National Museum of Women in the Arts has only been around for a little over a century, and it already has one of the most curious histories in D.C. Originally designed by Waddy Butler Wood (yes, that’s his real name), the towering, wedge-shaped, column-flanked Renaissance-revival building was built to be a Masonic Temple in 1907. The cornerstone was laid by Theodore Roosevelt, and construction finished by 1908. Looking closely at the crenelations and bas-relief carvings in the building’s exterior, the Masonic compass-and-square emblems still remain a part of the Temple. Inside, many of the galleries still have mosaics under the rugs.
Much of Freemasonry’s rituals are secret to non-Masons. But, judging by the scope and scale of the building, it’s easy to see that this Temple was meant for larger rituals, possibly larger than some of the other lodges in the District could accommodate. The firm of Wood, Donn, and Deming created an imposing structure that declared stateliness and importance. This was not another neighborhood lodge. This was built to be a Temple.
Despite the secrecy of the inner workings and rituals of their fraternal organization, the Freemasons were (and largely still are) a community-focused bunch. Within two years of opening, the top floors of the building were leased to George Washington University’s Library. As early as 1911, the spacious auditorium was used to showcase motion pictures. In addition, within the first twenty years of its opening, the Temple leased office space to a dentist, an insurance agent, and a uniform supply shop.
By 1916, the theatre portion of the Temple took off, and began regularly showing serials and feature films. The auditorium, which could easily hold 1,500 people, was permanently re-modeled for movies in 1918. While the theatre thrived for a brief period, there was a lull in the 20’s and 30’s. A drastic change took place that the theater couldn’t have seen coming: sound. Up until 1927, the majority of motion pictures shown in the US were silent films. “Talkies” were a serious curveball, and the theater slipped into decline.
During that lull, the Pix Theatre ran features at the Temple, showing sometimes fairly salacious material. Reefer Madness was screened at the Pix, as was Hedy Lamarr’s full-nude performance in Ecstasy. The Masons and their wives were none too happy about the material being screened (and the reputation the Temple acquired), and declined to renew the lease in 1952.
SIDE NOTE: Completely unrelated to this story, I just want to take a moment to recognize Hedy Lamarr and her contribution to the field of science and technology. While she certainly was one of the most gorgeous and talented women to grace the screen, she had a personality distinctly different from her contemporaries; she was an inventor. One of her greatest accomplishments was during the middle of World War II, when she heard about Allied torpedoes’ guidance systems getting intercepted and jammed by Axis forces. By jamming the radio-controlled signal, the torpedo would go off-course and miss its target. Lamarr imagined a means to bounce the frequency between several points, instead of going directly from broadcaster to receiver. The practice was called “frequency hopping,” and was patented in 1942. The Navy didn’t pick up on it until 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when they outfitted their ships with Lamarr’s design. This process of frequency hopping is at the foundation of satellite communications, cellphone relay towers, Bluetooth, and WiFi. Again, this has nothing at all to do with the story about the Temple, but is still worth knowing. You’re welcome.
From 1952 onward, the Town Theatre operated out of the Temple. This was the last first-run, single-screen, downtown D.C. movie palace in the District. It was meant to be a lavish, and immersive experience, complete with white-gloved ushers, and doormen who would hail you a cab. Town was further renovated in 1968 for widescreen features, and stereophonic sound. Sadly, these movie palaces were on the decline by the 1970’s. Multi-plexes became the standard, and single-screen theatres, like Town (and the Ambassador) went out of style. By 1983, Town closed its doors for good.
Meanwhile, Wilhemina Cole Holladay and her husband, Wallace F. Holladay, were in search of a place to showcase their growing collection of art. During an art-focused visit to Europe in the 1950’s, Wilhemina was especially moved by the work of Clara Peeters, a 15th Century Dutch painter, who somehow went unmentioned in the art texts from that period. In fact, the Holladays noticed there were scarcely any mention of women at all. Over the next thirty years, Wilhemina went to work, collecting pieces from as many women artists as she could.
In 1981, Wilhemina and Wallace, which has to be one of the best D.C. power-couple names, founded the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Their collection opened first as a nonprofit, private gallery. In 1983, the Museum purchased the Masonic Temple, and by 1987, it was open to the public.
Today, the National Museum of Women in the Arts not only maintains the Holladays’ mission, but carries it into the 21st Century with some of the foremost powerful and vital presentations of artwork by women. The collection features 4,500 pieces of art from almost 1,000 artists. The NMWA opened with Beatrice Whitney Van Ness in 1987, and in the past 29 years has featured Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Cassat, and Frida Kahlo, among many, many more.
A curiosity some have pointed out in writing about the building’s history is how a temple built for a men-only fraternal organization was turned into a national museum exclusively featuring the works of women. However, it is worth considering that despite the secrecy of the rites, a good deal of Freemasonry’s operations are public and charitable works. It’s likely that the original Masons who attended meetings at the Temple would be proud to see the space transformed into what it is today. Even a Masonic-published newsletter called the NMWA “exceptionally worthy successors” of the space. In a city where everything used to be something else, that’s the highest and rarest praise anyone can get from former occupants.
Next week, NMWA and BYT will partner up for Exclusively Inclusive, an event that highlights She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World, and other features currently on exhibit at the Museum. Both men and women are welcome to this event, and there will be no secret passwords or handshakes. White gloves and aprons are entirely optional.
Special thanks to Stacy Meteer and the NMWA for their assistance and artwork.