BANGOR, Maine — Masons have a new home more than 5½ years after their historic hall downtown was destroyed by fire on a frigid January night.
The Bangor Masonic Foundation announced Tuesday that it has purchased Wellman Commons, the Beach Chapel and the Ruth Rich Hutchins Center that connects them on the former Bangor Theological Seminary campus.
“The Masonic family and the people involved in this move are all very excited about the location and the opportunities it offers us for growth in the community and [our ability] to provide the services we have offered in the past,” Guy Chapman, president of the foundation, said Tuesday at a press conference at the historic seminary campus announcing the purchase.
The foundation paid $550,000 for the property, which includes 3 acres of land, the buildings and the parking lot. The closing was Monday, according to Chapman, 77, of Bangor.
The seminary moved four years ago from the Union Street campus to Husson University. Now located off Broadway in Bangor, the seminary sold its former campus in August 2007 to Paul Cook of Bangor and Kenneth Ray, a self-employed Portland businessman, for $1.65 million. The two formed Seminary Redevelopment LLC to market the property.
“This is an excellent marriage,” Chapman said of the Masons’ decision to buy the buildings.
The Masons have been without a home since Jan. 15, 2004, when their building at 116 Main St. caught fire. The blaze raged well into the next day, when what was left of the 1868 structure was torn down.
The exact cause of the fire was never determined.
The paralyzing subzero temperatures, combined with high winds the night of the fire, caused the millions of gallons of water thrown at the burning Masonic Hall to turn into a mantle of ice. Photographs of the still-burning crystal palace circulated internationally. Newspapers as far away as Japan published images of the ice-encased building the day after the fire, the BDN reported on the first anniversary of the blaze.
The Masons, Chapman said Tuesday, were forced last year to abandon plans to build a new $3 million, 19,000-square-foot building at 300 Perry Road in Bangor because of increased construction costs and the failing economy.
The former seminary buildings the Masons purchased have 30,000 square feet of space, he said, adding that the lot on Perry Road is for sale.
“This is a great day for Masonry in the state of Maine and the city of Bangor,” said Grand Master Robert Landry, 68, of St. Albans. “All Masonic bodies again will be centrally located in Bangor. It’s an ideal situation.”
Since the fire, the more than 2,000 men and women in Masonic groups have met in rented spaces in the Bangor area, according to Chapman. Meetings are scheduled to be held in the new buildings beginning in September.
Bangor Mayor Gerry Palmer said Tuesday that he was “tickled pink” about the sale.
“This is a win-win for the community and a win-win for the Masons,” said Palmer.
Jane Bragg, who was a member of the seminary’s board of trustees when the property was sold, said she approved of the sale of the buildings to the Masons.
“It is a Christian organization and a nonprofit,” the owner of Thomas School of Dance in Bangor said Tuesday. “It’s good to know the facility is going to be maintained because of the historical and architectural relevance of the buildings.”
The Masons plan to do some renovations to the buildings. among them turning the chapel into a lodge hall, Chapman said. The dining room and kitchen will continue to be available to nonprofit groups such as the Bangor Rotary, which meets in Wellman Commons at noon Tuesdays.
Penobscot Theatre Company will continue to rent space for offices and rehearsal space in the former classrooms above the chapel, he said. The large classroom and adjacent office over the kitchen will be used by the 32nd Degree Masonic Learning Center, now located on Harlow Street in Bangor.
Cook, 48, of Bangor joked at the press conference about the deal the Masons had gotten on the property.
“If you are patient, sometimes you just get lucky,” he said of the sale.
Cook also said that the larger buildings on the former seminary campus have been sold or are under contract. The former Moulton library was purchased earlier this year by the Bangor Public Library to house books that rarely circulate. Maine Hall, the seminary’s former dormitory, is under contract to be converted to assisted living housing, he said.
The campus houses that had been broken up into apartments and the Hannibal Hamlin house, which was used as a home for seminary presidents, have not been sold, but are occupied by renters, according to Cook.
In addition to the Learning Center, the buildings will house the following Masonic groups: the Rising Virtue Lodge 10, AF&AM; St. Andrew’s Lodge 83, AF&AM; the York Rite Masonic Bodies; the Scottish Rite Bodies; the Order of the Eastern Star; the Bangor DeMolay and the Bangor Rainbow Girls.