Masonic Hall is Greenville's forgotten skyscraper

buildings downtown historic

Trick question: What was Greenville's first skyscraper?

Best response: Define "skyscraper."

While there's no standard definition of the term, most architects would probably agree that any building rising at least 150 feet above street level – 12 to 14 stories – that has elevators and steel-beam construction is a skyscraper. But a more nuanced and inclusive definition would be any structure that protrudes above nearby buildings and changes the urban skyline.

And small American towns, like Greenville a century ago, were inclusive. To have a skyscraper was to be up-to-date, modern, wide-awake. So when a flush of new construction started with the five-story Ottaray Hotel in 1909, continued with the six-story Masonic Temple in 1910 and the seven-story Imperial Hotel in 1911, each was anointed a "skyscraper."

Indeed, they all boasted elevators and they certainly protruded above Greenville's two or three-story "skyline." The much-mourned Ottaray, demolished in 1964, lives on in hundreds of Main Street images and in local memories. The Imperial, now the Summit, still graces the corner of Washington and Richardson streets. But the Masonic Temple (or Hall or Building – all three names were used), which stood proudly at Court Square for 60 years, seems to have been totally forgotten.

Its 6,000-square-foot site at the corner of West Court and South Main streets was purchased by the Masons of Greenville from the Donaldson family in 1907 for $10,000. The land was then vacant; old-timers said that the infamous Tory "Bloody Bill" Bates was buried there.

Masons were taking on an unusual, and for Greenville, unique project. They were constructing the first high-rise office building in the city and at the same time providing themselves with elegant rent-free quarters for generations. It was, in contemporary real-estate speak, a "Class A" office building with the best location in the city – towering over the adjacent county courthouse and the post office, across the street from the Record Building, exceptionally convenient for lawyers.

The building was expensive – the final cost would be $125,000 – but the Masons wanted the best. On the ground floor there would be space for two stores, divided by a grand hallway. Sixty-five offices were planned for the next four floors. The sixth floor was reserved for Masonic meetings and regalia storage.

In order to pay for it, the local lodge chartered the Masonic Temple Company, which issued stock in the building. According to the Greenville Semi-Weekly News, 60 percent of the stock was purchased by local masons. The president and treasurer of the company, and, according to Yates Snowden, the "prime mover" in getting the Temple built, was businessman Davis Durham, a partner of Gilreath & Durham, jewelers and silversmiths.

Reporters at the time called the building, designed and engineered by Joseph E. Sirrine, "majestic" and "handsome," although it lacked any decorative flourish. But they particularly emphasized its safety and fireproof construction. New York and Chicago were already famous – notorious even – for buildings hundreds of feet tall, reaching, in some cases, more than 20 stories into the sky. But this was Greenville, and to be desirable office space, the new Masonic Temple needed to be super safe.

It was. With a brick facade over concrete masonry construction, room partitions made of mixed ground glass and concrete, and asbestos shielding all sides of timbers used in construction, each office was individually fireproofed. While hardwood floors and some trimmings were wood, engineers used inflammable materials, including plaster and more asbestos, whenever possible.

In addition to two safety elevators, both installed by experts from the Otis Elevator Co. in Philadelphia, there was what sounds like a primitive sprinkler system ("a machine in the cellar to deliver water at full flow to the top story in case it should be needed"). Other amenities included mail slots and toilets on every floor and wash basins in every office.

Evidently forgetting that in the 1820s Robert Mills had designed fireproof buildings around the state, including Greenville's Record Building, Masons widely publicized their "temple" as only the second fireproof structure in the state and the only one west of Columbia.

They broke ground with appropriate ceremonies before Christmas 1909, hoping to complete the building by June. But coordination was difficult: The general contractor was headquartered in Birmingham, Ala.; having subcontractors in Atlanta, Macon and Greenville (Barr Plumbing) made problems.

The "move-in date" was delayed until November. And while attorney William E. Sirrine occupied the first completed office in December, most tenants were not in place until spring 1911. But every space was occupied by mid-summer, half with lawyers' and Realtors' offices, the others with executive offices of cotton mills. The Parker Cotton Mill Co. took two full floors. Greenville's Masonic Temple was the modern place to be.

And it stayed that way for a half-century. It had competition, of course – the Woodside Building (Greenville's first "real skyscraper," many would argue), and the Chamber of Commerce Building in the 1920s, but it remained at fairly full tenancy well into the 1940s. By the 1960s, though, when community leaders dreamed of a modern "civic center" to combat creeping downtown decay, the Masonic Temple was an easy target.

It was old-fashioned; its floors were scuffed and walls long-unpainted. Half of its offices were vacant; many of the others were low-rent charitable organizations. And it sat on one of the most desirable lots in Greenville.

When it was demolished in the summer of 1971, there were no tearful preservationists pleading for its restoration, no letters to the editor remembering the past. Its concrete masonry fell, and in its place rose our current, equally utilitarian, equally fireproof, equally modern city hall.

Judith Bainbridge