A century-old collection of Freemason artifacts was lost when the historic Masonic Temple in Orange burned down two months ago.
The artifacts had been placed in a time capsule made from a hermetically sealed iron box and then secured behind a brick the year the building at 235 Main Street opened in 1887. What the collection contained was a mystery because only one member of Union Lodge 11 – an 86-year-old man – is alive and he does not remember what was stored within the walls.
However, Jersey Digs uncovered a list of relics more exotic than the Freemasons imagined. The book One hundred years of masonry in orangespublished in 1909, contains an elaborate history of Union Lodge 11, as well as details of the dedication ceremony and the time capsule, naming each artifact.
Most members brought foreign coins from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But the capsule also included a mosaic tile from the ruins of Pompeii and a royal medal from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
The Freemasons are a quasi-religious brotherhood organized by lodges. The first lodge came from England to the United States in the 18th century and appointed Benjamin Franklin as its Grand Master. The Union Lodge in Orange was founded in 1809 and its first officers were the most prominent residents of Orange. Those familiar with the city’s street names will recognize the surnames of local Freemasons like Jephta Baldwin, Stephen Day and Benjamin Lindsley.
The Masonic Temple was one of the architectural gems of downtown Orange before it caught fire on April 19. Its rust-colored facade was made of pressed Philadelphia brick, and its six-story tower was the second-tallest building on Main Street. The lodge has long met on the third floor while a banquet hall was on the fourth floor.
Prior to the multi-alarm fire, the Freemasons of Livingston Lodge 11 and a commissioner from the Orange Historic Preservation Commission had attempted to obtain permission from the building’s current owners to document the historic interior and salvage the lost artifacts of the freemasons. However, the owner refused them entry.
“The owners don’t care,” Guy Notte, a Freemason from Livingston Lodge 11, told Jersey Digs.
Meanwhile, West Orange town historian Joe Fagan reported that he had successfully removed a number of architectural remains, including terracotta ornaments and a pilaster, from the rubble. While some are grateful that something significant may have been preserved from the old room, it’s unclear what Fagan plans to do with these items. It has also sparked a debate about the ownership of these objects and the limits of architectural recovery. Legally, a person salvaging elements of a building that is scheduled for demolition must purchase salvage rights from the demolition company. Fagan, who is West Orange’s public information officer, did not respond to attempts to reach him.
The origins of Freemasonry are somewhat esoteric, rooted in the belief that Masonry, particularly the building of places of worship, is a sacred enterprise. More than a dozen US presidents were Freemasons.
In the 19th century, Union Lodge 11, commissioned an exhaustive history of its fellowship, called One hundred years of masonry in oranges. The book included a copy of a speech delivered on the day of the dedication of the Masonic Temple which summarizes its mystical origins.
“The exact beginning of our society in the dark and veiled past is embroiled in mystery, which no human research has been able, with complete certainty, to penetrate,” reads the speech. “But with the aid of scriptural history and Masonic tradition, we can, with sufficient certainty, trace the existence of Freemasonry to the remotest recesses of time.”