Downtown Bozeman's Historic Masonic Temple #18

This is the story of Bozeman’s growth through a lens focused at Masonic Temple #18, one of two Masonic lodges on Main Street. Located a few blocks from each other, each lodge is on the second floor of a historic building, over retail stores. Both have active memberships that espouse Freemasonry’s core values that philosophically apply to the masonry trade: fortitude, justice, prudence, integrity. The square and compass are the most visible symbols of the fraternal order, standing for morality and virtue respectively. These symbols are prominently displayed on the facades of both buildings.  

Masonic Lodge #18 has been located in the building at the intersection of Main Street and South Tracy Avenue since 1950. This solid masonry building was Nelson Story, Sr.’s first sizable project on Main Street, which he constructed in 1890 as part of the city’s bid to become state capital. This effort reflected Bozeman’s rapid population growth from 1880 to 1890, from 894 to 2,143. In his early 50s at the time, Story had been a millionaire for over a decade and could afford to develop his ample land holdings in Bozeman. The six storefronts, at 2-12 East Main Street, were part of Story’s speculative venture, in which he rented portions of the building to various businesses, never occupying it himself.

Story’s construction at Main and S. Tracy coincided with the completion of his new mansion at the west end of Main Street. This freed him up to have his first Bozeman home - a wood-framed house erected in 1869 - moved from the site to the southwest corner of the block, where it was rotated to face Babcock Street. The home was moved again in 1914 to allow for construction of the Tracy Avenue Post Office building.

Story’s selection of Livingston architect Isaac James Galbraith demonstrated Galbraith’s success during his short time in Montana. The architect for Story’s mansion, Byron Vreeland, had died in October 1889, and Galbraith had burst upon the scene since his arrival from Pittsburg in the summer of 1888. The Livingston Enterprise ran articles about Galbraith and the residences, commercial blocks (Miles, Enterprise, and Carver), and county buildings that he had designed. His success prompted him to bring architect T.R. Fuller on board in August 1891. After Galbraith & Fuller received the 1892 commission to design the Montana Building for the World’s Fair in Chicago, they moved their office and residences there.

Galbraith opened offices in towns where he had projects. He opened his Bozeman office in November 1889, presumably after receiving the Story building commission, as the project began construction in April 1890. The Avant Courier noted:
Ground was broken on Monday last for the foundation of the Story brick block, corner of Main street and Templar avenue. W.H. Tracy has the contract for excavating, which is a sufficient guarantee that the work will be pushed forward to completion as rapidly as men and teams can accomplish it. The block will be two stories and basement, will have a frontage of 120 feet and a depth of 105 feet, with a basement 7 feet high, under the entire building. The excavating involves the removal of between 3,000 and 4,000 cubic yards of dirt.

Construction moved at a steady pace, with the November 1890 completion allowing stores to move in during November and December. Each of the six stores had a separate entry and stairs to both their dedicated basement and second floor spaces. Solid brick walls divided each unit, from the basement to the just below the roof. The Main Street façade was elegant, with taller end bays articulated with stepped and raised pilasters flanking brick arched windows. The parapets were composed of elaborate brickwork, with dentiling, recessed panels, and corbeling. Below the stone windowsills, brick dentil work capped the steel beams that spanned over the storefronts. Although of solid masonry, with bearing walls of Bozeman brick and local sandstone trim, the second floor façade was pierced regularly with tall double-hung windows and the first floor filled with glazed storefronts supported by brick and cast iron columns. This masterful treatment maximized the glass area at the entries.

Story appears to have easily leased the storefronts. The 1891 Polk Directory listed six services in the building. The earliest legible photograph of the building was featured on a 1916 postcard and coincides with the 1913 Polk entries for: Hardware & Buggies (the painted Studebaker Wagons sign on Tracy could be read from a block away); Harness; Boots & Shoes (advertised with a large boot sign); Jeweler Tailor & Cleaning; Cigars, Tobacco (written on a sign mounted to the brick column); and Variety. In 1910, Chinese merchandise and Japanese goods were sold from the alley end of the 12 E. Main Street store.

Commercial blocks are frequently updated, as merchants vie for the greatest market share. Nelson’s son and grandson, Nelson Jr. and Nelson III, implemented various changes to the building, engaging local architect Fred Willson to design storefront alterations from 1916 to 1940. The 1937 changes were the most comprehensive, with a stylistic procession – from English Tudor Revival to Classical – displayed on the storefronts. This work was outdone in 1940 with the conversion of the corner jewelry facade into a sleek Art Moderne visage with polished black structural glass.

The Masonic Lodge became involved with the building in 1935, when Nelson Story III, a member of Lodge #18, suggested the lodge lease the second floor. The lodge had been without its own home since its 1872 founding. They had intermittently shared space with Lodge #6, until they began using the second floor of the Chambers-Fisher building at 7 West Main in 1906. They explored several options from 1935 through 1948: new construction (they had bought land at S. Tracy and Babcock), renting the Story building, and ultimately purchasing the building. World War I, post-war inflation, and the Depression had squashed their plans to build anew in the 1920s and 1930s. In March 1947, they voted to purchase the Story Building for $185,000 with payments due over a 25-year period. The $27,000 sale of their Babcock lot and a Story promise for the final $10,000 payment – along with the sale of $200,000 in stock to their members – helped them close the deal.

Architect and lodge member Fred Willson designed the lodge’s 1950 remodeling which cost $387,500. The work was extensive and ultimately devastating, a product of a stylist application that Willson’s staff later claimed he wasn’t comfortable with – that of the International Style. The parapets were all cut down to the same level, protruding brick detail sheared off, the second floor walls concealed with stucco, and the wood windows replaced with steel sash. All was neat, clean, and precise – until the stucco showed unsightly stains and cracks. After deliberation and membership appeals, the temple board decided to renovate the exterior. The Spring 1980 Montana Masonic News summarized the project:

The exterior walls on the Main and Tracy sides are badly in need of repair. The plans call for insulating and closing many of the windows on the Tracy and Main Street sides. Much heat loss is currently experienced with the large number of second floor outside windows. An attractive plan for new brickwork and exterior finishing was presented. The remodeling cost is estimated at $62,000.

Architect Hulbert Cheever designed this face-lift, which included the above-described work, a second layer of stucco, and a series of gently sloped brick arches over the storefronts.

By 2014, the lodge had tired of the lack of transparency at Main Street and decided it was time to have a stronger, more interactive, presence. Thus began a three-year process of exploration, design, and construction to transform the building’s exterior. A feasibility study partly funded by the Downtown Business Partnership resulted in a plan to restore the Main Street façade and its S. Tracy corner. Holes cut in the 2½”-thick stucco revealed that much of the original brick and stone detailing had not been removed during the 1950 installation of studs to support the stucco. The treatment of the S. Tracy façade in 1950 called for a different response. All of the brick detailing had been cut off and the stucco applied directly to the brick, leaving little as a basis to restore. This provided an opportunity for a new expression sympathetic to the original, by application of a screen wall of cementitious panels over the stucco. A two-story curtain wall thrillingly interrupts this neutral façade and reveals the new lobby and stair sequence of the Masonic Temple entry, which used to be tucked away in a recess at S. Tracy.

This building’s story is not unusual in Bozeman where other buildings have been restored, yet its history of ownership, design, alterations (both those implemented and those only considered), and uses – not all of which could be recounted in this article – is rich and instructive. It teaches us that buildings adapt to our ever-changing needs and inspire us to reflect on them.  

Lesley M. Gilmore, AIA is a registered architect and director of CTA’s Historic Preservation Services. She was the project manager for the recent rehabilitation of the Masonic Lodge #18