Some of you may have attended a craft show, wedding reception, prom or other event at the Masonic Temple, a majestic building that sits along Valley Pike. If you’re old enough, you might even remember going to teen dances on Saturday nights. But what is it exactly?
The Masonic Temple is home to two Lodges of Free and Accepted Masons, a fraternal organization whose roots date back to the 13th century. The older of the two lodges, known as Cambria Lodge Number 278, began in 1854. The newer of the two, Greater Johnstown Lodge Number 538, is only slightly newer, having been established in 1875.
Unfortunately, the fires claimed the first records of both Lodges, but fortunately Ricky Fetzer, Secretary of Lodge 538, painstakingly pieced together a comprehensive history of local Masonry from other sources.
The first Masonic meetings were held in a hall located at Railroad and Clinton streets. Later the meetings were moved to Main Street in a building located roughly where the old JC Penney store had been. In April 1894, the two lodges in Johnstown, together with the Royal Arch Masons of Portage Chapter 195, moved to Alma Hall on Main Street.
The Masons were given exclusive use of the fourth floor for an initial annual rental of $640. Alma Hall, one of the downtown buildings that survived the 1889 flood, is now used by the IOOF, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
In 1917 the Johnstown Masonic Temple Association was formed. The charter provided for the formal organization of the association and the eventual construction of a Masonic temple. An organizational meeting was held on June 25, 1917, at which time Brother R. Given Rose was elected President and Brother Earnest G. Owen was elected Secretary, with Rose continuing as President for another 20 years.
Local Masonic lodges grew to a point where it became apparent that a larger facility was needed.
In June 1923, a site for a new temple along Valley Pike was purchased from the Conrad Suppes family for $73,000, and the firm of JC Fulton and Sons was hired four years later as architects.
Fulton’s original design called for a five-story building, with the lodge rooms occupying the top floor. Plans were eventually scaled down to include only four floors, with the pavilion bedrooms on the second floor.
The Temple Association approved the construction of the temple in November 1929, just as the United States was sinking into the Great Depression. Across the country, construction projects have stalled. Locally, however, plans for the construction of the new Masonic temple continued.
The Wilson Construction Company was awarded the general contract for $195,000.
The cornerstone of the new building was laid on November 14, 1931. Plans had to be scaled down and only one of the two planned meeting rooms, the York Rite Room, was completed when the first meetings took place. This hall served as a unique meeting place for the next two decades as the Temple Association struggled financially with the rest of the country. However, with the building nearing completion, funds were allocated to cover payment to renowned stone carver Albert McIlveen for his elaborate carvings which adorn the main entrance and window lintels.
At the start of the building’s occupation, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Eastern Commandery No. 61 of the Templars authorized an expenditure of $5,688.61 for the purchase of kitchen and dining equipment for the building. At the same time, the auxiliary organized its members into a corps to serve the banquets. They were finally able to contribute $26,405.25 to help the association run.
In December 1936, the Temple Association held a Christmas party which was so successful that the four lodges formed what became known as the Good Cheer Club. The purpose of the club was to organize events that would benefit the association.
At the end of the Second World War, attention focused on the completion of the second of two assembly halls, known as the Blue Lodge Hall. The room, with an Egyptian theme, opened its doors in October 1948.
A period of relative prosperity for the next 30 years ended with an economic downturn and a coincident national trend of declining interest in fraternal societies. All four lodges struggled, with Conemaugh Lodge 692 and Johnstown Lodge 578 eventually merging to form Johnstown-Conemaugh Lodge 538 in December 1991. Five years later Sunnehanna Lodge No. 742 joined the merger to create Greater Johnstown Lodge 538. .
Today the temple is home to the Masonic Temple Association and Cambria Lodge 278, Greater Johnstown Lodge 538, Portage Royal Arch Chapter No. 195, Cambria Council No. 32 and Oriental Commandery No. 61, Knights Templar.