Seattle Now & Then: The Seattle Masonic Temple (now the Egyptian Theatre), 1916

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THEN: This photo first appeared in The Seattle Times on Aug. 6, 1916. A workman perched outside the second-floor window adds finishing touches to the newly completely building. At sidewalk level, a makeshift sign importunes passersby with an offer of “Free Wood.” (Ron Edge collection)
NOW: Snapped on a balmy Saturday evening during the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival, our “Now” photo features an eager crowd lining up at SIFF Cinema Egyptian. This year, SIFF marked its 45th anniversary in a 44- year history. Triskaidekaphobic staffers banished year 13, skipping directly from the 12th to the 14th anniversary. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in Seattle Times online on Oct. 3rd, 2019,
and in print on Oct. 6th, 2019)

A Monument to Masonry and the Movies
By Jean Sherrard

Inspiration has always bolstered the brickwork at the southeast corner of Harvard and Pine. From its construction in 1916 as a Masonic Temple, the brick-and-terra-cotta building was the collaborative effort of 18 Masonic lodges.  Designed by legendary Seattle architect Charles W. Saunders (whose many credits include the Alaska Building, the Rainier Club and the University of Washington’s Denny Hall), the 63,000- square-foot structure was built for $250,000.

“When the last touch is finished,” claimed lodge president Frederick Johnstone, in an August 1916 Seattle Times interview, “it will be one of the finest temples west of Chicago.”

Marking the occasion, a weeklong “housewarming and carnival” was planned for early October, during which the 8,000 members of Seattle Masonic lodges, their families and friends, and the general public would be invited to visit this “monument to Masonry.” Festivities would include “all sorts of ‘dignified stunts’ and dancing, accompanied by splendid music.” The addition of the celebrated “Captain, the horse with the human brain,” who could answer “with nods and hoof beats a great variety of questions,” would cap the week of celebration.

The crowds were, indeed, wowed by the Masonic masonry. The temple boasted a full stage with dressing rooms and the latest in “indirect lighting and … independent ventilation,” plus an 1,800-seat auditorium, not to mention “one of the finest dance floors on the Pacific Coast.”

Flash-forward several decades. Long after Captain’s hoof beats had faded away, the temple accommodated local Masonic lodges, besides serving as a venue for community ceremonies, celebrations and performances, ranging from cellist Pablo Casals to our own Paul Dorpat, who recalls attending a summer rock concert in 1967, “when this then-inhibited 30-year-old Lutheran first unzipped his knees with hours of free-form hippie-dancing.”

By the late 1970s, big changes loomed. “Capitol Hill was becoming a tough neighborhood,” says Jim Russell, current secretary of St. John’s Lodge in Greenwood. “It was hard just finding a safe place to park. The temple also needed extensive restoration, and our membership numbers were declining.” In 1980, nearby Seattle Central College purchased the building to expand its growing campus.

Down the hill, a young but burgeoning Seattle International Film Festival had lost its primary venue, the Moore Egyptian, and was seeking a suitable replacement. Visionary founders Dan Ireland and Darryl MacDonald leased the temple’s massive auditorium, remodeling and rechristening it the Egyptian Theatre.

Since those early days, SIFF has grown exponentially. With more than a dozen venues, this year’s festival showcased 400-plus films from nearly 90 countries for some 140,000 attendees. Known since 2014 as SIFF Cinema Egyptian, the theater also screens films year-round and is celebrated as Seattle’s premiere single-screen historic theater, even without an educated horse.

WEB EXTRAS

Check out Jean’s narrated 360-degree video, shot on the penultimate weekend of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Seattle Masonic Temple (now the Egyptian Theatre), 1916”

  1. I remember watching pro rasslin’ in the Masonic Temple in the ’70s. The ring was on the main floor and I think the spectators were in a balcony that encircled the big room, or at least that’s how I recall it.

  2. I can’t believe you would not mention that this theater was for decades a movie theater operated by Seven Gables and then Landmark. Before that many live performances were there including many well known performers.

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