Viroqua’s Masonic Building celebrates its 100th anniversary | New
The Masonic building in downtown Viroqua was rededicated on Saturday, August 20. The rededication celebration recognized the building’s 100th anniversary. The building was inaugurated on August 24, 1922.
Built between 1921 and 1922, the Masonic Building, located at 114-118 S. Main St., houses the restored Historic Temple Theater, Second Time Around consignment shop, and Labelle Lodge 84.
A rededication ceremony led by Mayor Justin Running was held outside the Masonic building’s main entrance at 11 a.m. He shared a brief history of Viroqua masons and the building. Running said he looked forward to the building and its occupants being part of the city for many years to come.
There were tours of Labelle Lodge and the Temple Theatre, special sales at Second Time Around and food and drink at LaBelle Lodge. A public Masonic lodge meeting was held at 1 p.m. with grand lodge dignitaries from Wisconsin and surrounding areas.
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In 1867 a group of masons from La Crosse Lodge #45 came to Viroqua to charter and establish a lodge here. It was number 84 in the state of Wisconsin.
The new Lodge grew and met in the back rooms or second floors of homes and places of business in Viroqua. In 1892 the Order of the Easter Star was chartered to Viroqua.
The current Masonic Building sits on the site of a building that belonged to J. Henry Tate. The building burned down in 1913. When Tate, who was a Mason, decided to rebuild, he offered Masons the opportunity to build and own the second floor of his new building, which was dedicated in 1914. It was a frame building with a brick facade and had three stores on the first floor. On the morning of February 11, 1920, the building was completely destroyed by fire.
The Vernon County Broadcaster supplement “Grand Opening Celebration July 5-7 for the Historic Temple Theater” dated July 4, 2002, noted: “After extensive discussions and consideration of alternatives, the Lodge has decided to purchase the land to the Tate heirs and build their own building, to include a theater, and they launched a bond issue and built the current structure at an approximate cost of $145,000.
The current structure was designed by architectural firm La Crosse Parkinson & Dockendorf, who also designed the Bekkedal Tobacco Warehouse and Vernon County Normal School, both in Viroqua. The original interior decoration of the theater and the bedrooms upstairs was designed by the interior design firm Oyen de La Crosse.
The Vernon County Censor, dated June 28, 1922, praised the Masonic Lodge: “It is difficult to over-praise the local Masonic Lodge for the great work that has been done. There is not a city in the United States with less than 10,000 inhabitants that can boast of having such a temple and such a theater.
“The magnitude of the task of financing the proposal can be better imagined when we realize that the building itself cost over $130,000. The completed building, with its theatre, store and lodge furnishings, paraphernalia and stock, is worth approximately $225,000.
This same edition of the newspaper noted one of the modern features of the theatre: “The Temple Theater is fitted with the Johnson system of temperature control. This act alone places it in the highest class of theater buildings. The temperature in the auditorium of this theater is automatically controlled by instruments known as thermostats.
On July 5, 1922, the Vernon County censor reported on the opening of the Temple Theatre: “Never has the censor’s editor been so keenly aware of the utter inability of language to express the feelings which run through the human soul in the presence of beautiful things as he was when he attended the official opening of the Temple Theater on Saturday and Sunday Monster crowds took the opportunity to inspect the marvelous new theatre….Overall , the opening of the Temple Theater marks one of the greatest milestones in the progress of this community….
The August 30, 1922, edition of the Vernon County Censor noted the dedication ceremony held on August 24: and stars and visitors from all cardinal directions traveled to Viroqua to assist in the proper dedication of the beautiful new temple built by the LaBelle lodge. Nearly 900 fraternal guests… sixty-five different lodges and thirteen States represented… The big event of the day was the parade… in which nearly four hundred took part.
Revenues from the theater and two stores were supposed to pay off the mortgage. When the Great Depression hit, rental income was not enough. By 1935 the Lodge was close to bankruptcy. The debt was reduced to $95,000. The building was placed in receivership and Judge Lincoln Neprud was named in charge. The building was put up for sale and the only bid was placed by WD Dyson, a mason who had also been on the original building committee. The offer was $40,000; Dyson bought the entire building. He paid back taxes, did a lot of deferred maintenance, and rented the theater. In 1936, he sold the floor—except the front room (also called the club room)—back to the masons and took a note for $12,000.
In 1943, the Lodge received help from another Lodge member – Alonzo May. When he died in 1943, he left the Masons $8,000 to use to pay off the Dyson ticket.
In 1949 the Lodge bought out the front room and once again the Masons owned the entire second floor of the building.
The Temple Theater closed permanently in 1992 after falling into disrepair as a series of owners opened, closed and reopened the business due to financial difficulties. According to “Grand Opening Celebration July 5-7 for the Historic Temple Theatre,” “The theater was in danger of being torn down and replaced with a parking lot. The theater remained unattended for two years.
In 1994, the late businessman Fred Nelson purchased the theater and the two adjoining storefronts. He sold both storefronts and donated the theater to the Vernon County Historical Society. The historical society turned the theater over to the newly formed Associates to Restore the Temple Theater (ARTT). Restoration and construction began in the fall of 2001.