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Aurora’s historic Masonic temple destroyed in fire after years of vacancy

The temple’s hulking design can make it a tough redevelopment project

A close up photo of the top of a building with carved stone detailing. There is a triangular top with square column carving.
A detail of the Lincoln Masonic Temple building.
Photos courtesy of Landmarks Illinois

A fire that burned through Monday night has destroyed the landmark Lincoln Masonic Temple in downtown Aurora, according to fire officials.

The long-vacant building burned from for about nine hours, and the fire caused significant damage to the Neoclassical temple, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In Aurora, city officials were trying to come up with a plan for the 97-year-old building as recently as August, the Tribune reported. Since 1982, the temple has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designed by architect William Q. Bendus in 1922 for the Aurora Masonic Alliance. There is more than 50,000 square feet of space which includes two assembly halls, a formal ballroom, and a grand entrance hall.

For the past 11 years, the building has suffered from deterioration and, without a tenant to make repairs the landmark, only became a tougher project to develop, said Lisa Dichiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois. The Lincoln Masonic Temple was a site on the organization’s most endangered landmarks list in 2009.

Photos courtesy of Landmarks Illinois

“It is one of the most prominent buildings in the city and that was one of the reasons it was included [on our list]. Unfortunately, there are underutilized Masonic temples all over the nation, all over the state. They are a really difficult building type for reuse.” said Dichiera.

Not only are they difficult buildings to renovate, they are also difficult to save. Fire officials were required to battle the fire in Aurora from the top down because of the small windows.

Masonic temples are massive, hulking buildings usually made of stone or brick. There might be a few small windows along the sides and tall narrow windows at the entrance, but the glass is minimal. In the ’80s, many were adapted into banquet halls, as the cavernous entrance halls and large open chamber spaces were perfect for that use. However, that type of development doesn’t work in every area, said Dichiera.

In Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, a 20,000-square-foot Masonic temple was renovated over a three-year period into Eris Brewery and Cider House. The three-level restaurant opened in 2018 and has 20-foot ceilings, repurposed fixtures, and original brick and wood. The South Side Masonic Temple wasn’t as fortunate. The decades-long vacant building with Art Deco, Egyptian Revival, and Moorish influences was demolished in 2015.

As for what will happen to the Lincoln Masonic Temple, it’ll be up to fire officials and the city to determine how dangerous the damage is. It’s unclear whether the entire structure will be lost completely or if perhaps parts of it will become salvageable. While buildings in Chicago have come back from devastating fires, like the Pilgrim Baptist Church, each situation is different, said Dichiera.

Photos courtesy of Landmarks Illinois