Behind Mission Masonic Center's Art Deco facade is a turn-of-the-century ornate brick building that was the first iteration of the center.

The giant Factory 2-U with red glowing letters dominates the block between 22nd and 23rd on Mission Street, beckoning customers with rows of clothes at low, low prices. Yet unless pedestrians look up, they’ll likely miss what else is housed in this behemoth building: the Mission Masonic Center.

Look closely and a sign for the Masonic temple tops the gated entrance on the side of the discount store. Above, a midcentury sea green and terracotta hued façade in Art Deco style covers a ornate brick  building hiding beneath – one that was  constructed at the turn of the 19th century, and christened 116 years ago today.

While their vision retains their longtime tenant, Factory 2 U, for years to come, it doesn’t include what the architects would really like to do: remove the 70-year-old Art Deco façade to reveal the late 1800’s-era brick underneath. That’s because the building is protected by historic preservation regulations in its current 1945 incarnation, said Kevin Hackett, a mason who works as the principal architect at Siol. Hackett, who is spearheading the project, presented his plans to modernize the building to 300 of his fellow members at the Mission Lodge on December 8. The lodge is one of six still functioning in the city.

Behind Mission Masonic Center’s Art Deco facade is a turn-of-the-century ornate brick building that was the first iteration of the center.

Hackett said architectural preservation requirements can stymie vision. “It’s almost like Paris, it’s kind of a façade-ist notion that ‘Oh, we want to preserve the street and the look, and [the current look] works perhaps more with the Victorians and the Edwardians.’ It’s sort of shameful, in a sense, that we’re unable to peel back the art deco mask to reveal the structure behind it. So, we’re trying to maintain a sense of this [the Art Deco] aesthetic – as well as incorporate some modernity.”

Hackett, Carter and Siol’s Ryan Coleman’s plan calls for updating the building, restoring the Art Deco elements, and adding outdoor lights. He envisions a space inside where large salons and TED-like talks will be held for Masons and the public alike, a step to incorporate the Masons into the wider community.

The plan will also make the Masonic entrance more visible, boosting the center’s profile on the street, Hackett said.

Masonry began in the Middle Ages as a fraternity for stonemasons during the height of Gothic cathedral building in Europe. Centuries later, it evolved into Freemasonry and took on more spiritual aspects. It is widely known for its focus on geometry, secret rituals and use of symbols.

In California, Masons arrived with the settlers during the Gold Rush of 1849. In the following year, the Grand Lodge of California was established in Sacramento and in the ten years after that, 130 lodges were established across the state, according to the Grand Lodge of California. Mission Lodge, the third in San Francisco, was given its charter in 1863.

Members first met in a hall on Valencia and 16th streets. Near the turn of the 19th century, the Masons acquired a property on Guerrero to build a hall to accommodate its growing membership. According to an 1897 story in the San Francisco Chronicle, the location was not central enough, so the masons instead bought the Mission Street property to build the current complex.

The Chronicle reported that on Dec. 30, 1897, the leader of the lodge, Grand Master Thomas Flint Jr., “dedicated the hall to universal benevolence… in a very interesting manner.” Interesting, indeed: he led a solemn service that included “pouring of the corn, the wine and the oil upon the emblem of the lodge.”

Afterward, the lodge’s Grand Orator E. S. Lippitt delivered a grand address, declaring, “that neither wealth nor position, but true manliness, was the requisite to become a Mason.” According to Lippitt, a Mason was “the true ideal of man.”

The Chronicle described the building in a way that would surprise a pedestrian on Mission today: “a fine three-story edifice of a most modern type and finished in the very latest style.” The temple’s first refurbishing occurred in 1945 when the Masons bought the adjacent property and expanded their building. In doing so, they covered the ornate brick façade with the current Art Deco tiles.

After the renovation, all that remained visible of the old temple were the large Mason symbols of a trowel, caliper and ruler set high in three bas relief ornaments. The masons moved in a tenant on the first first-floor of the expanded space: J. J. Newberry, a “5-10-25 Cent Store.”

Mission Masonic Center once the facade is restored and the commercial space is updated with modern window treatments.

In recent years, the Masons wanted to renovate the building to expand the organization while ensuring the building will last another century. To Hackett, updating the building’s functionality would attract new members and reassert the lodge’s presence in the neighborhood.

Some of its spaces feel more like middle school gymnasiums than vaunted places of worship, he said, and they’ll be modernizing everything from the electric wiring and plumbing in the 1945 addition while preserving all the 19th century building’s elements like the upper wainscot, hand-built chairs, chandeliers and ornaments, Hackett said.

“Part of the really fun conceptual challenge is to marry the old and the new, and I think that’s something that plays out time and again in modern architecture in San Francisco,” said Hackett, who had been an architect in the city for 13 years after emigrating from Ireland.

Because the Masonic Center has extra space, Hackett thinks renting some of the building’s large rooms to yoga or dance studios would increase the center’s visibility to the public.

“One of the big visions we’ve had is for a lecture series for arts and ideas series,” Carter said, playing off the Mason legacy of intellectual pursuit. “We’re not just trying to attract new people, but really to engage the community as well.”

The plan will make the rundown Bartlett Street entrance – the main door used by the Masons on the back of the building – into a prominent entryway. Carter says that at his first meeting there, he was taken aback by meeting “guys in tuxedos smoking cigarettes outside of what looked like a warehouse.”

Hackett plans to cover the unsightly HVAC and other utilities with a patio where Masons could gather, and add an attractive façade over the outdoor elevator that would be lit up to signal to the neighborhood that the Masons are in session.

“We’re trying to change the face of the organization where we can,” Hackett said.

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Alexander Mullaney is a journalist and publisher in San Francisco. In 2008, he founded The Ingleside Light, a monthly neighborhood newspaper with a circulation of 10,000. In The Ingleside Light he reports on community affairs and publishes the work of both local and student journalists and photographers. He sits on the board of directors of the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, the Ocean Avenue Association, and the San Francisco Neighborhood Newspaper Association. In the summer of 2013, Mullaney organized and managed two community journalism courses for youth with City College of San Francisco and the non-profit Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse. The pilot program paid students stipends, offered both high school and college credit, and published their articles and photographs in The Ingleside Light. He intends to find funding to offer the program in 2014. Mullaney holds a bachelors degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. He is studying multimedia and longform writing at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He plans to use his time at graduate school to expand his reportage to produce stories for the public good.

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  1. Good to know the Masons are interested in updating this building and figuring out new ways to utilize the space.

    Too bad the historic preservation regulations prevent them from uncovering the original facade.

  2. Let’ see- built at the turn of the 19th Century? That would be around 1800. The author is off by 100 years…..