Arena tours a refurbished Freemasons’ Hall with V.W. Bro Paul Abbott, Grand Superintendent of Works
W Bro David Pugsley SLGR reports
Next time you are in the Grand Temple, look up, there you will marvel at what has been described as “a hidden gem in the heart of London”. With the support of the Local Authorities Conservation Officer and Historic England, the mosaic ceiling has been extensively repaired and refurbished over the last 12 months and has now been unveiled to reveal its renewed splendour and beauty for all to see.
Like the mosaic restoration, there are several other projects that have also been completed, all of which fit to make the whole. In some sort of continuous movement, one project makes way for another. When the Covid related suspensions are finally lifted and resumption gets in full swing, you will be able to see the result of all the work for yourself. Arena was privileged to be offered a grand tour and we must admit, it is impressive. Undoubtedly, the Grand Temple is the crowning glory. All the mosaic tiles have been painstakingly repaired and hand gilded in 18-carat gold by a specialist company and their team of restoration experts. The pictures will give you an idea of the mammoth task this was, to take care of every single tile one by one and place it back in the correct position to refresh the overall mosaic.
We start our tour looking at that ceiling, and I try to spot the circular plates concealing the holes which were originally used to provide access to anchor points within the upper roof void to support the access scaffolding when this magnificent building was first erected. Prior to the closure of Freemasons’ Hall due to the Covid pandemic, Bro. Paul’s team made use of these access holes to erect a hanging scaffold which was then shrouded in plastic to provide a safe working access platform whilst maintaining the day-to-day operations within the Grand Temple.
Part of the reason for the work on the ceiling was that cracks were appearing within the mosaic and parts of the tesserae had started to become detached. This situation had been carefully monitored for several years and it became apparent that the condition of the fabric of the ceiling was deteriorating. It was initially thought that the possible cause of the deterioration was corrosion of the steel frame of the building. After detailed close examination and intrusive investigations the steel framework proved sound, a great relief to all our pockets.
Built in the early 1930s at the suggestion of the then Grand Master Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, Freemasons’ Hall was originally the Masonic Peace Memorial. A memorial to those brothers who had lost their lives in the First World War. Individual Masons, Lodges, Provinces and Districts all contributed to the building costs. Individual donors received a breast jewel to evidence their personal contribution whereas the donations from Lodges, Provinces and Districts are commemorated with inscriptions on the stairs leading to the Grand Temple level. The Masters of those Lodges wear the Hall Stone Jewel. Next time you go to a meeting, take the time to go and read the names of these Lodges.
On our way around, we meet with other members of the team, W Bro Paul Turner, Deputy Grand Superintendent of Works and Mr Mark Kennedy, the Head of Maintenance. Their enthusiasm and dedication to our Hall is palpable in every word. We are very lucky to have them and others putting in so much of their time and efforts to care for our magnificent building.
Looking down into the courtyard surrounding the grand temple, I spot another project recently completed, a massive generator. Local Londoners may recall the major power failure of 2018 that knocked out electricity in the local area for 24 hours. Freemasons Hall was of course affected, and it was decided to prepare for any such incidents in the future. A generator was ordered, and a new construction project initiated.
Paul tells me the generator, which is the size of a double-decker bus, needed to be craned over the top of the building in several parts and assembled on a newly made concrete platform. There are two basement levels under the courtyard, and part of the work included strengthening the structure. From Africa Fashion Week to many movies and TV dramas, the Hall is extensively used for generating income and forms a vital part of our finances. Allowing general access into this famous landmark also offers a great way to showcase the magnificence of this Grade II* listed building and promote Freemasonry in the public eye. As it can be refuelled during its operation, the generator is able to power the whole building for as long as is necessary. Not only can Lodge and Chapter meetings carry on as normal, but any external events can take place uninterrupted as well.
In yet another project run by Bro Paul’s team; Metropolitan Grand Lodge has relocated to brand new modern offices with a new entrance off the Sussex Corridor. The offices now overlook the new coffee and dining area, which will be in use by the time you read this article. You will be able to book dining rooms for festive boards, and the space is flexible to accommodate larger groups.
Our tour ends with a look at the new UGLE offices which have taken over the old Rooms 18 & 19. You may remember them in use as gloomy Chapter rooms on the mezzanine level. These offices are now bright and airy and have been remodelled to create a modern administration hub. The long-term vision to facilitate all these works commenced with the alteration and refurbishment of the original flats located on the third floor and the remodelling of two committee rooms situated off the ground floor Sussex corridor in early 2018. These works created three new lodge and chapter rooms at third floor level and two additional smaller chapter rooms on the ground floor which replace rooms 18 and 19 and provide additional chapter rooms to meet increased membership demand.
I remember my father taking me to a meeting of the Anglo Foreign Lodges Association in the Grand Temple shortly after being initiated into Freemasonry. I was a Fellow Craft at the time, and it was my first visit to Freemasons’ Hall, as our Lodge met elsewhere. Apart from being petrified at the grandeur of the proceedings and the awful prospect of making a mistake, I remember being overawed by the temple itself. Even today, many years and meetings later, it still holds the power to overawe, as has Freemasonry itself. But there is a bigger picture. Our Hall, a memorial to those who gave their lives in the First World War and, for those that built it, a monument to peace, stands as a living representation of our hopes for the future. It is open to the public, modernised within the fabric of the building, and used by Freemasons and non-Freemasons alike. People like you and I give up our free time willingly and enthusiastically to ensure the building, synonymous with our craft, is looked after for generations to come. I think those that went before would be pleased and proud to see what we are doing.
This article is part of the Arena Magazine, Issue 45 July 2021 edition.
Arena Magazine is the official magazine of the London Freemasons - Metropolitan Grand Lodge and Metropolitan Grand Chapter of London.
Read more articles in the Arena Issue 45.