Short History of the Des Moines Scottish Rite
The Des Moines Scottish Rite Consistory is both an organization and a landmark in Iowa’s Capitol city. As well, the building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983.
The Scottish Rite is a Masonic organization based around principles of freedom and self determination. Scottish Rite Masonry traces its history in the United States to 18th Century and to 1859 in Iowa. The Scottish Rite has been part of the Des Moines community since the 1860’s.
The present Des Moines Scottish Rite was chartered in 1892 by the Supreme Council, 33°, Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction. The driving force for establishing the Scottish Rite Consistory in Des Moines was two-time Iowa Governor Buren R. Sherman. Sherman was an accomplished Iowan, having been gravely wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and also served as Iowa’s State Auditor.
For the first 30 years in the Des Moines community, the Scottish Rite organization was located in other Masonic buildings in the area, including the Masonic Temple at 7th & Walnut Streets. Beginning in 1913, the Consistory operated from the Downtown Masonic Lodge at 10th and Locust, which is now known as the Temple for Performing Arts.
The members of the Consistory spent over a decade considering and eventually planning a building of its own. The decision to finally build was made a planning committee of twelve.
The building design came from a variety of sources. Documents indicate that a trip was made to St. Louis, Missouri to examine their Scottish Rite Cathedral. The bronze doors on the south side of our building were cast by the same company that provided doors for St. Louis. However, it seems much of inspiration for the building design came from the architects, Frank Wetherell and Roland Harrison. It also happened to be the first major commission for the pair who distinguished themselves in details inside and out.
Construction on the Des Moines Scottish Rite Consistory began with the purchase of the lot at 6th and Park in December of 1924. The architect’s plans were approved in December 1925. Construction began shortly after and the building Cornerstone was dedicated in June 1926. The Consistory was completed in November 1927.
The financing of the construction is an interesting chapter in the history of the building. The members of the Scottish Rite had considered building their own facility beginning in the 1890’s. As late as 1914, a Building Committee was founded and recommended 14th and High as an appropriate site. However, no final action was undertaken until 1924.
At the beginning of the construction, the Des Moines Scottish Rite made over a 50% down payment – $500,000. The rest of the construction was financed by a variety of sources, with a primary mortgage of $300,000. The Building ended up costing just under $1 million dollars when completed.
Over the next decade of the Great Depression, the membership of the Scottish Rite labored to meet the payments on the Consistory. Records indicate the bulk of the debts, the $300,000 mortgage, was paid off in 1942.
Construction itself was not without impediment. The project was threatened when contractors digging footings ran into a vein of sandstone. The contractors were delayed and requested additional payment. One of the Planning Committee members, Frank Dole, familiar with the mining industry, explained that the issue sat with the contractor. Evidently the sandstone had been left exposed to air and hardened, if the contractor had immediately attended to it, the excavations could have gone forward. The construction continued.
The Consistory Building and its architecture isn’t alone in the neighborhood. Immediately south, across Park Street is the award-winning American Republic Insurance Building (1967) and it’s outdoor sculpture garden. The Miers van der Rohe-designed Home Federal Savings and Loan Association of Des Moines building is also located nearby. The American Republic and Home Federal Savings buildings were recently named as part of the most significant Iowa buildings of the 20th century. Additionally, one block away is the Principal Corporation campus and its acute modern architecture.
A January 1978 article in the Des Moines Tribune described building as a “surprise” in downtown Des Moines. The article described a building with “12 drinking fountains, 23 lavatories, six booths…” It also cites the auditorium seating 850 persons and the pipe organ donated by Dr. S.D. Chamberlain and installed by John Beeston.
Later in 1978, George H.W. Bush spoke at Scottish Rite. The future President spoke to a crowd of 500 during the Fall Round-Up Dinner in September. Bush would be elected Vice President of the United States two years later.
National Historic Trust Designation
In 1983, the Des Moines Scottish Rite Consistory was added to the National Historic Registry. Along with the National Historic Registry listing, the members of Consistory founded the Metropolitan Historic Building Trust. This trust is commissioned to maintain the building.
1992 was the centennial observance of Scottish Rite Masonry in Des Moines. The membership of the Scottish Rite commissioned a 100-page book entitled A Century of Scottish Rite Masonry in Des Moines. Most of the historical material on this page is directly adapted from this book.
Into the Future
The members of the Consistory are actively maintaining, and when necessary, enhancing the building. Planning is underway to increase accessibility for disabled persons, something not envisioned by the original builders. A detailed plan is being developed by and shared with the Des Moines Scottish Rite members.
The goal of the plan is to leverage the nearly 80 years of history of the Consistory into a sustainable resource for another 80 years.
The Scottish Rite was cited as one of the “places Iowans love” in the March 3, 2007 Des Moines Register.