Masonic Temple - 285 Whitney Ave, New Haven, CT

Square Route

From the square tiles laid on the floor to the blue sky painted on the ceilings, just about everything in the Masonic temple at 285 Whitney Avenue has symbolic meaning—and contrary to popular belief, not everything the Freemasons do or believe is a secret. Former Worshipful Master Michael Calderone (pictured second) was happy to give a temple tour on Saturday, January 6, just before the installation of new officers for Hiram Lodge #1 A.F. and A.M. It’s one of four New Haven lodges, or chapters, that hold regular meetings there.

Mostly brick, with imposing columns and bronze front door, the Whitney Avenue temple—there’s another one on Goffe Street—was built by Freemasons in 1927. Hiram Lodge #1’s history, however, goes back much farther than that. Its charter dates to 1750, and it has met since then without interruption. The #1 in its name reflects the fact that it was the first Masonic lodge in Connecticut. The initials tagged on the end stand for Ancient Free and Accepted Masons.

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Freemasonry’s roots stretch back to the Middle Ages and the professional guild of stone masons, but the first lodges in England, from which Hiram Lodge #1 was chartered, date to the early 18th century. Today, the craftsmen’s accoutrements can be seen in the familiar Masonic symbol of a square and compass and the aprons worn by members, or “brothers.”

Calderone showed off the temple’s three lodge rooms, all of them decorated in the style of an ancient stonebuilding civilization: Egypt, Greece and Rome. In preparation for their installation ceremony, brothers in black tuxedos roamed the hallways and the Roman lodge room—the building’s largest—taking care of finishing touches. Outside one door, brother Scott Abrams held a ceremonial sword. His job as “tyler” would be to ensure that anyone who approached was authorized to enter. Brendan McGann, who was about to take on his one-year term as the lodge’s new Worshipful Master, was wandering the room, ready to go. A top hat and a gavel made from Connecticut’s charter oak were set on the table beside a grand chair, awaiting McGann’s installation.

All three of the temple’s lodge rooms share several characteristics. The chair for the Worshipful Master is on a dais three steps high on the east side of each room. Directly across, the Senior Warden sits up two steps, and to the south, the Junior Warden sits up one step. Two ashlars, or square-cut stones, stand in front of the Worshipful Master’s seat: a “rough” one and a “perfect” one, because, as Calderone explains while pointing to the former, “We start off like this, and then through the work, smooth out the rough parts.” An altar in the center of each room is flanked by three lights and, when the lodge is open, holds four required items: a volume of sacred law (a Bible, a Torah or another sacred book), the lodge’s charter and the intersecting square and compass.

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Even the floor covering carries meaning. The lodge rooms are carpeted, whereas the floor outside is tiled in black and white squares. “When you’re in the lodge room, everything’s the same,” Calderone explains. “When you come out into the ‘real world’… you’ve got the world of opposites.” Meanwhile, a blue sky is painted on the ceiling of each lodge room to represent “the universality of Freemasonry.”

Other intriguing facts range from the quirky—the temple’s front is square to the street, but the rest is angled for true east-west alignment—to the historic: among Hiram Lodge’s best-known members were Revolutionary War hero-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold, General David Wooster (for whom Wooster Square was named) and, more than a century later, Machu Picchu explorer Hiram Bingham III.

Despite Calderone’s detail-packed tour, some of the Masons’ doings do remain hidden from outsiders, including what happens at the opening and closing of each meeting and the initiation of new members. It’s about trust, Calderone says. If one of his brothers has a secret, “he knows that he can tell me and I’m not going to go blab it to someone else… If I can’t keep safe a few little things from our ritual, how can I keep safe the big things?” He adds that there are two exceptions to the rule: murder and treason.

Calderone describes membership as “an educational program.” The “ancient teachings” of the Masons have been handed down from generation to generation of brothers, often by word of mouth. There are “lessons about morality, how to deal with people, how to be an upright citizen…” Calderone says. “The symbol is the square. You treat somebody ‘fair and square.’ We’re always reminding ourselves how to be good citizens in our community.” That good citizenship includes running fundraisers for local organizations like New Reach’s Life Haven shelter for women and children; Masonicare, a nonprofit retirement community provider founded over a century ago by local Freemasons; the Farnam Center, which describes itself as the area’s “oldest neighborhood recreational center;” and the Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital.

As charitable as the Freemasons are, they’ll never invite you to join them. But don’t take it personally. Membership, Calderone says, is something men (and, in some other lodges, women) have to request. The organization doesn’t want anyone coming in half-heartedly. If you do, “You’re not a Mason here,” Calderone says, tapping his chest, “and that’s where you have to be a Mason.”

Hiram Lodge #1 A.F. and A.M.
Masonic Temple – 285 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 562-9487

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 depicts Michael Calderone.

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