33° Below Zero

My friend Navi and I checked out this old Masonic hall on one of those particularly frigid Detroit days, when it was so cold it even hurt to breathe. I assumed this was always a Masonic building, due to the old sign on the marquis out front, and the layout of the upper floors. Apparently Detroit is big enough to have not only the world's largest Masonic Temple downtown (which I explored in an older post), but also a few more out in the neighborhoods as well.

As I quickly learned upon doing a little research however, it was originally built more as a temple of entertainment. I will say it certainly has a lively and distinguished exterior fa├žade; I suppose it could have either been a Masonic temple or an entertainment center.

We got in quick and hit the stairs, hoping to get some photos from the roof before sun set.

A view of the marquis, verifying this building's past use:

I found this weird little Triforce-shaped table in the stairs, and then this huge ceremonial sort of chair, so I put them together...and then Navi came around the corner holding a big wooden scimitar, so we added that to our increasingly hackneyed Masonic-themed photo op...

...Keep an eye out on Instagram to see how long before people coming behind us might add the usual worn-out staged "artistic" conventions, like fake flowers, candles, or other silliness like scantily-clad women posing in the chair with bondage gear. Or maybe even one of those Pink Panther cigarette holders. (For what it's worth, I think the "SW" on the chair indicates that it was used by the Senior Warden).

But anyway, like I said this building was originally called the "Dexter Recreation Co. & Market Center" before the Masons had anything to do with it. A Detroit Free Press article from October, 1927 introduced this prominent new structure on the city's west side when it opened, declaring, "Big Play Plant Well-Equipped," with an accompanying photo:

Image from Detroit Free Press via newspapers.com
It had a cool blade sign, and the name "ROWLEY" seems to appear over the front door. Focused on family fun, bowling, and billiards, outfitted with the latest Brunswick equipment, this facility was designed and owned by the Rowley-Waters Co., completed right before Halloween of 1927. Two whole floors were devoted to bowling with 12 lanes each, while a third floor was devoted to billiards, having 16 "scientifically lighted" tables. Specific attention was given to league play in both sports.

According to Mr. R.B. Rowley, it was the first type of building in Detroit to use the Carnegie "H"-section steel frame. Interior finishing was done by the Detroit Lumber Co. Apparently steps were taken for soundproofing and fireproofing the structure beyond normal considerations, namely by using Gabriel Steel floor trusses with extra-thick concrete poured into lath on top—this was definitely one stout building. Before the bowling alleys were laid out, the concrete subfloors were covered in a triple layer of balsam wool, Insulite, and cork for sound buffering, since some of the building's upper floors were going to contain office space as well.

The ground floor was rounded out by a full grocery market, bakery, deli, meat counter, a Phoenix Ice Machine, a drug store, and a restaurant. Among the local brands featured when the building opened in 1927 were: Orling's Delicatessen, Mr. Yaffa's Grocery, I. Ruffsky produce, Sam Simon Meat Market, E.H. Cooper Bakery, and the The Courtyard Restaurant. Fairmont Creamery's "Delicia" ice cream was served exclusively at the center.

This place must have been pretty cutting edge for its time; a place where mom can go take care of all of her shopping, and turn the brats loose upstairs to play games for an hour with dad sounds like a predecessor to the suburban shopping mall of 40 years later. At the very least, the idea of combining a  corner grocery with a corner meat market, corner deli, and a corner bakery seems to presage the coming of the modern supermarket by almost 30 years. I'm not sure if even the Fisher Building had all these amenities, and it wasn't opened until a year later.

A post on detroityes.com led me to a holiday advertisement in the Detroit Jewish News from 1948, which calls the place "A City in Itself" under the proprietorship of Herman Fenton:

Image from Detroit Jewish News
Originally a huge Jewish enclave, the Dexter-Linwood region of Detroit emptied out precipitously after the 1967 Riot, but the thing about Detroit's Jewish population was that unlike other whites, they had no problem selling their property to black people. Just as Jews migrated from Dexter-Linwood to Southfield after 1967 to be replaced by blacks, so too had Jews migrated earlier from the area that subsequently became Black Bottom. Of course almost all of Detroit is black now, which makes it a challenge for people from the younger generations to discern the population patterns that presaged Detroit's becoming a majority black city in the 1970s.

Ads I saw in the Detroit Free Press indicated that in 1935 the market on the ground floor was called the Dexter-Boston Market (after the streetcorner), and in 1949 it was serviced by Awrey Bakery (which as I recall was originally based nearby on Tireman Avenue between Dexter and Livernois, before relocating to the suburb of Livonia). Another 1947 ad called the market a "self serve grocery."

In 1950 the Higgins Importing Co., dealing in educational recordings and film strips, was based in this building according to one journal.

A week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, another battle was set to rage here on Dexter according to the Free Press. Six company teams were vying in the All-Star Classic for the chance to play in the annual Goodfellows' fund match: Paris, E&B, Schmidt's, Mineralites, Strohs, and Nationals. Other matches included teams from Vernors, Wayne Spaulding's Bowling School, and Pepsi-Cola.

I'm still confused however as to where in the building the bowling alleys would have been, since no single room I saw in here was big enough to really hold one. Perhaps the floors of the building were originally wide open, and have subsequently been compartmentalized by adding more walls and rooms?

Speaking of the Riot, two months before it happened, another tragic incident occurred here where an employee lost his life. It was a Wednesday night on Dexter Avenue. Ralph Belamy, age 22, was working as a rack man in the billiard room at the Dexter Recreation Co. An argument over a dime with a patron ended up with Belamy shot twice, before the assailant, an ex-convict according to witnesses, "menaced the patrons of the packed pool room," and fled the scene. Mr. Belamy lived at 3211 Doris, and was declared dead on arrival at Henry Ford Hospital. It was six months until Dexter Recreation Co. would be celebrating its 40th anniversary in this building, and two months before the outbreak of the infamous 1967 Riot / Rebellion—a disturbance that would devastate this neighborhood.

A few days later, Goodwill opened their 15th Detroit-area store here, operating out of the main floor. Goodwill is a resale shop selling used clothing, shoes, furniture, and small appliances, and judging by the number of newspaper ads I saw, they remained in the building for several years. I don't think Dexter Recreation Co. stuck around much longer after 1967.

Still under the impression that we were in a purpose-built Masonic hall, we came up the stairs to a large open room in the center of the floorplan that was being illuminated by a single ray of the rapidly setting sun's final light piercing through the doorway and exploding against what looked like a raised stage or altar at the back of the room...very mystical indeed, ha:

After a quick look around this empty floor we went up to the next one to find the exact same situation again, but this time actual Masonic podiums were set up around the room for the sunlight to hit, just like in that one scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the staff and the crystal, in the place with all the snakes...

Yeah, luckily no writhing viper pits here in Detroit (at least not when it's 3° Fahrenheit), but this resembled what I remembered seeing how Masonic lodge rooms were arranged at the temple downtown, with three podiums set up corresponding to where the wardens were stationed around the southern, western, and eastern walls of the room, and a large central altar for holding the Sacred Law.

I quickly realized that all the upper floors of the building seemed to be set up like large, centrally-located Masonic "lodge rooms," surrounded by smaller ancillary rooms...each floor followed this same layout, just like in the main Masonic Temple downtown, which serves as the headquarters of all the Freemasons in Michigan.

In the corner was what looked like an office:

Scattered on the floor, I snapped a quick photo of these Masonic booklets so I could later research the names on them...

The cover reads,
66th Anniversary: May 12, 2001, Annual Scholarship & Appreciation Banquet: M.W. Jerry L. Harrison, Grand Master; guest speaker M.W. Kenneth L. Hollowell; M.W. King Solomon Grand Lodge AF & AM.
The "M.W." stands for "Most Worshipful," by the way, which is a Masonic title. The "AF & AM" part stands for "Ancient Free and Accepted Masons." Despite the large central room serving as a Masonic lodge room, here in one of the rooms off to the side looked to be another lodge room...

The draped American flag is a nice artistic touch (gag!). Notice the big letter "G" on the eastern wall, with the Masonic square symbol under it. Many people assume the "G" symbol stands for "God," but I'm told it actually stands for "Geometry," with the implication that God is the "Great Architect" of the Universe, and of the perfect and immutable laws of Mathematics, etc. The square appears again on the podium.

The "Commission on Bogus Masonry" (which judging by its website seems a little bogus itself), has the King Solomon Grand Lodge in their list of "Bogus Grand Lodges in Michigan." The list has a detailed profile of vital info on each alleged transgressor; this lodge is shown on the website as being led by A.V. Flintroy, having been incorporated / qualified on April 23, 1937, and which last filed an annual report in 2004.

Bogus or not, they had been around for most of a century by the time this building closed. I'm not even sure what criteria would constitute a lodge being "bogus."

On the next floor up, we found yet another lodge room almost identical to the last, but the ceiling was caving in a bit. Once again, you will notice the "G" on the eastern wall, since the East is the direction where the Light comes from—or Enlightenment, if you prefer:

I looked up the names of the people on the booklet, and M.W. Kenneth Hollowell is still around, but he's now called "Ill. Kenneth L. Hollowell 33°," having apparently moved up in rank; he is listed as the Supreme Grand Master of the Ralph Bunche Grand Lodge of Michigan, at 2101 Gratiot Avenue (which, incidentally, also shows up in the registry of phony Masonry). That lodge's website was last updated in 2011 (or 6011A.L., if you prefer to go by the Masonic calendar), so this information may be out of date. By the way, "Ill." stands for "Illuminated," and "A.L." stands for "Anno Lux," or "Year of Light."

Uh-oh, another hackneyed "urbex" photography convention—the looking-over-an-open-book-on-a-podium shot:

I found this lodge mentioned in a 1983 copy of African World Festival, (the magazine of the Afro-American Museum of Detroit), which indicated that the lodge president at that time was somebody named C.E. Gibson. By the way, the Masons who made up this lodge seem to have been all Afro-American, in case you hadn't already figured that out. Despite the perception that Freemasonry has always been an exclusive club for white men, it has been my casual outside observation that the generally shrinking Brotherhood has survived in Detroit based on a large number of African-American members. 

A store called the "Medicine Chest" was present in this building in 1982, which—other than the Masons—seems to have been largely vacant of tenants as the area began to decline. Alpha Phi Alpha and the Optimists were running Meals on Wheels from the building in 2012. The last owner of record for this property was Infinite Family Network, and it was subject to foreclosure as of 2014.

Now in the upper reaches of the building, I was anxious to see what these corner turrets were all about. Did they hold some secret Masonic relic such as an ancient scepter, a sacred scroll, or the enshrined bones of some medieval saint? Would I be instantly melted or incinerated, or banished to some alternate dimension upon laying my gaze over these eldritch artifacts?

This catwalk led the way to the answer—and undoubtedly mystic enlightenment...

...or more file cabinets! Not even another plywood scimitar was to be found amongst this mundane treasure trove; looks like Indiana Jones already plundered this temple. Still, it was a very cute little tiny room up here on top of this corner tower with cute little windows looking out in all directions. I would dig having an office all to myself up here, five stories above the city. I was actually surprised that it had been made habitable at all; I totally expected to find a bare utility room.

A look down at the local coney island, with the St. Paul's Elderly Housing tower in the background, which I explored in another post:

Suddenly all notions of disinterring Illuminati secrets faded from my mind as I bent my thoughts toward food...it was time to hit the roof real quick, and go get something deep-fried.

Stepping out on the rooftop, we were instantly lacerated by the icy subzero winds that had been raking their claws across the city for weeks. It's so cold in the D, how the @#$% do we 'sposta take pics?

Facing south, a unique view of downtown with the Lee Plaza included at far right:

Looking back toward the front of the west-facing building, its three protruding turrets (and Navi) silhouetted in the luminous winter halo of the setting sun:

I liked this view looking back toward the New Center area, which is where I was currently staying:

Pulling back a bit, the old Sacred Heart Seminary comes into view at left:

One thing only remained for us to investigate, the corner turret at the rear of the building...

Inside, I was again surprised to find that not only was this not merely a bare utility room, but it had apparently once contained an apartment, or perhaps a break room for the building maintenance guy:

Whether it would actually be admissible by code or not I don't know, but with 14-foot ceilings and tall arched windows this would make a pretty swanky corner apartment.

Darkness falls on Dexter Avenue...

Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 9 (1915)
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 9, Sheet 13 (1925)
"Big Play Plant Well-Equipped," Detroit Free Press, October 23, 1927, p. 13
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, February 25, 1949, p. 16
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1935, p. 13
Help Wanted Ad, Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1947, p. 19
"Bowling Alleys," Detroit Free Press, August 29, 1934, p. 19
Detroit Free Press, December 3, 1947, p. 12
"Big Battle is Prospect in Classic," Detroit Free Press, November 25, 1941, p. 14
"Lotto," Detroit Free Press, December 14, 1982, p. 13
"Meals on Wheels: We Need Help," Detroit Free Press, March 19, 2012, p. 4A
"More Goodwill," Detroit Free Press, May 20, 1967, p. 3
"Poolhall Fuss Over a Dime Ends in Death," Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1967, p. 19C
Advertisement, Detroit Jewish News, December 24, 1948
Michigan Education Journal, Volume 28 (1950), p. 50
African World Festival, (Afro-American Museum of Detroit, 1983) p. 22