Colored Masonic Temple
The Colored Masonic Temple (officially the Masonic Temple Building) is an 8-story Renaissance-Revival style building located at 1630 4th Avenue North. It was constructed for the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Free & Accepted Masons of Alabama and is a contributing structure to the 4th Avenue Historic District. The building was developed under the leadership of Grand Master Walter Woods and the $750,000 cost was funded entirely by contributions, without taking on any construction debt.
The brick building was designed by the firm of Taylor & Persley (Robert Robinson Taylor and Louis Hudson Persley), and built by Windham Brothers Construction. The cornerstone was laid in 1922 and the building opened on April 1, 1924. Its design features an engaged limestone temple front on the south facade. The architrave and frieze of the Corinthian entablature was segmented to make room for the fourth-floor windows. The dentil cornice is continuous, and wraps two sides of the building, dividing the upper and lower sections. The upper part of the facade is gridded off into two and 1 1/2-story sections, separated by pilasters and smaller entablatures.
Throughout its history the building has housed the offices of notable African-American professionals, businesses and organizations, and a popular drug store and soda fountain on the ground floor. Its auditorium, with a capacity of 2,000, was used for meetings, ceremonies, concerts, dances, cotillions, mass meetings and other special events. The Duke Ellington Orchestra and Count Basie's big bands played regularly in the Temple ballroom.
In October 1932 the auditorium hosted an All-Southern Scottsboro and Civil Rights Conference organized by the Communist Party-affiliated International Labor Defense. Speakers included Donald and Alice Burke, Mary Leonard and Ben Fowler. Most of the hundreds of people who came to participate were turned away by a police intimidation.
The Alabama NAACP held a meeting to reorganize in the Auditorium in the 1930s.
Three ground floor rooms were used for the Booker T. Washington Library, the first public lending library open to Black citizens in Birmingham. The offices of the NAACP, in this building, were padlocked following litigation by Arthur Shores over an African American student attempting to enroll in The University of Alabama. May 26, 1956 order by Montgomery Circuit Judge Walter Jones banning the organization from operating in the state of Alabama.
The 1960s saw the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, with the Colored Masonic Temple playing a large role. Many protests and sit ins were organized in the building, Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the Temple during the Birmingham Campaign. A makeshift infirmary was set up to treat wounded protesters during the riots. One of the largest demonstrations of the Birmingham Campaign was held in Kelly Ingram Park in front of the Temple. Attorney Arthur Shores operated from his offices in the Temple, leading the Civil Rights legal battle in the South. The home of Shores, along with the homes of many other Civil Rights leaders working from the Masonic Temple, such as accountant T.L. Crowell, were bombed by white supremacists. The home of then Mayor Albert Boutwell was also targeted by dynamite, although the bombs were disarmed before they could explode. These bombings led to the name of Dynamite Hill in the Smithfield neighborhood, and Birmingham to be nationally nicknamed "Bombingham". Shores led efforts to integrate Birmingham City Schools and to nullify thousands of those arrested during demonstrations during the Birmingham Campaign.
Around the 1990s, problems began to arise with HVAC systems and funds to keep the Temple operational. Around 2011, all tenants had moved out entirely, and the building shuttered and left dormant.
In the 2010s, space in the hallway by the Masonic Auditorium was damaged by fire, suspected to be from squatter activity. The Temple was fitted with a security system to aid in protection of the structure.
The Masonic Temple was still used for meetings of the the Prince Hall Grand Lodge until 2022 renovation efforts began.
In January 2009 Main Street Birmingham hosted a workshop at the building to generate ideas for creative redevelopment. A campaign to raise $10-15 million for restoration and expansion of the Temple Building was launched by the Grand Lodge in 2017, shortly after it was made part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Schemes for possible expansion discussed at the time included a multi-story parking deck to the west of the Temple with retail spaces on the ground floor.
In November 2019 The Lodge announced that it was working with Historic District Developers (a venture of Henderson & Co. of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina with Direct Invest Development LLC of New York) on a $29 million mixed-use redevelopment of the building. Urban Impact Inc. and the Birmingham Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity also participated in the project, which was intended to qualify for Historic Preservation Tax Credits, New Market Tax Credits, and Opportunity Zone tax credits.
Plans for the building include incubator retail, maker-space and office space. The project's design phase continued into 2022, with the start of construction planned for late that year.
The interiors of the Colored Masonic Temple building have been preserved by the closing and dormancy of the building. Prior to renovations beginning in 2022, a time capsule of life in Birmingham for African Americans from 1924 on to the 1990s survived, including fully-furnished and stocked dental offices from the 1930s and 1950s, Masonic meeting halls stacked with boxes of records and regalia dating as far back as the 1920s, artifacts from the Civil Rights era, and dozens of file cabinets filled with paperwork from the operations of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge and all affiliates in Alabama during the 20th century. These artifacts are being processed and catalogued by the Lodge for preservation and historical interpretation with the support of a $670,000 from the Mellon Foundation.
Fraternal organizations and labor unions
Protests outside the Colored Masonic Temple during the Birmingham Campaign, 1963 The Birmingham News
- Polk's Birmingham (Jefferson County, Ala.) City Directory, including Fairfield and Homewood (1941) Richmond, Virginia: R. L. Polk & Co.
- Ruisi, Anne (January 12, 2009) "Masonic Temple in downtown Birmingham draws preservationists." The Birmingham News
- Weiss, Ellen (2012) "Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African-American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington." Montgomery: New South Books ISBN 1588382486
- Edgemon, Erin (February 26, 2017) "Historic civil rights landmark launches fundraising campaign." The Birmingham News
- Van der Bijl, Hanno (November 20, 2019) "Developer eyes mixed-use project at Masonic Temple in city center." Birmingham Business Journal
- Watson, Nathan (February 14, 2022) "$29M renovation underway for Masonic Temple Building." Bham Now
- "Historic Masonic Temple in Birmingham Receives Mellon Grant to Preserve Artifacts." (April 21, 2023) The Birmingham Times