Built in 1909, the Winona Masonic Temple with its large public ballroom and other meeting rooms was an important center of social and civic activity in the city. It continues to serve Winona in the twenty-first century.
Many European-American men who came to Minnesota in the mid to late nineteenth century were Freemasons. Consequently, the development of Masonry in Minnesota paralleled the organization of many of the state's first towns. In 1853 a Grand Masonic Lodge was organized by the three lodges that already existed in Stillwater, St. Paul, and St. Anthony. The Grand Lodge dispensed charters for new lodges and created standard procedures and rituals. In January 1857 a charter was issued for Winona Lodge No. 18.
For the first several years of its existence the Winona Lodge met in various buildings. Meetings were mostly held in members' places of business. Subsequently, the Masons moved to the Smith Building, which was later called the Riverside Hotel. After a fire in 1862 the Lodge moved to the Stevens Building, where it remained for ten years. In 1863 and 1864 local chapters of the Royal Arch and Knights Templar Masons merged with the Winona Lodge. In 1873 the Masons moved to the third floor of the new Laird Norton Lumber Company Building. The space was designed according to the Masons' specifications.
In the late nineteenth century membership grew and the Masonic activities of the Winona Masons became more complex. New Masonic chapters were formed under other Masonic orders. Several bodies were charted that followed the Scottish Rite Valley, one of the most complex orders of Freemasonry. In 1900 a local chapter of the order of the Eastern Star was formed that allowed female members.
With membership growing the Winona Masonic Benevolent Association (WMBA) was formed in 1906. Part of the WMBA's mission was to construct a new Masonic temple. The WMBA commissioned architects Warren Powers Laird and C.F. Osborne of Philadelphia. Local contractor John Lohse constructed the building. The temple was built in a red brick and stone Beaux-Arts tradition of the neoclassical style.
The most prominent interior feature was a large proscenium-arch stage at the heart of the building. The stage and its scenery were important in the rites and rituals of the various orders of masons, especially the Scottish Rite. The WMBA bought ninety-eight hand-painted scenic drops that were produced by Sosman and Landis Scene Painting Studios in Chicago. The temple was completed in December 1909 with mahogany finishes that reflected Masonic ideology. Masonic furniture and other decorations were also purchased.
The Masons were highly respected in Winona, and the construction of the temple only served to heighten their presence in the community. Masonic events held at the temple consistently brought large numbers of people to Winona. The town's role as a Scottish Rite headquarters also brought regional Masonic conferences to the city for over eighty years. The large ballroom hosted balls, banquets, and civic events.
In the 1930s membership in Masonic organizations began to wane. The Winona Temple, because it was a center for the Scottish Rite, fared better than many others. However, in 1978 the Winona Temple lost what made it prominent when the Scottish Rite was moved to a temple in Rochester. A year later the WMBA sold the Winona Temple to the city. The first floor was remodeled to house a senior center. Winona Lodge No. 18 began leasing the second and third floors. The valuable scenic drops were left in the building even though the Scottish Rite had moved.
In the 2010s the Temple is still an imposing structure in downtown Winona. It represents the distinct culture of the Masons but also the development of Winona as a city. Many important civic and business leaders were members of the lodge. In 1997 the Theatre du Mississippi was founded and began performances in the Masonic Temple. Due to its role in the community and the significant art it houses, the Winona Masonic Temple was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
Winona Masonic Temple, National Register of Historic Places Nomination File, State Historic Preservation Office, St. Paul.
Editor's Note: This nomination file was the main source used in the writing of this article.
The Winona Masonic Benevolent Association is formed in 1906. Part of its mission is erecting a temple for Winona's Freemasons.
In January a charter is issued for the formation of Winona Lodge No. 18.
The Winona Lodge begins meeting in the Stevens Building.
The Winona Masons move to the Laird Norton Lumber Company Building.
Masonic membership in Winona grows.
A Scottish Rite body called the "Winona Lodge of Perfection" is formed.
A lodge allowing female members is formed.
The Winona Masonic Benevolent Association is formed on April 10.
The Winona Masonic Temple is constructed.
Membership in Masonic organizations begins to wane.
The Scottish Rite Valley of the Southern Region is moved to Rochester.
The WMBA sells the temple to the city.
Theatre du Mississippi is founded and is located in the Winona Masonic Temple.
The Winona Masonic Temple is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.