Scottish Rite Masonic Temple

The Scottish Rite Masonic Temple is a prominent, domed structure on Capitol Hill diagonally across from the State Capitol Building.  Technically Colorado Consistory Number 1, the Scottish Rite temple is the home of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in Colorado.  Constructed between 1923 and 1925, the temple was designed by Denver architect William N. Bowman, who was a member of the consistory before his death in 1944.  Bowman designed several other Masonic temples in Colorado, but is most famous for the Telephone Building on 14th Street and the State Office Building on Colfax at Sherman Street.

This neo-classical structure was constructed of buff-colored glazed terra cotta with a mottled finish, similar to the appearance of limestone or buff sandstone.  It also has a pink-granite base and a white, membrane-covered dome that was recently repaired.

Bowman originally designed a larger, more ornately-decorated building for the site, but redesigned the building to be the current three-story structure.  A historic photograph of the Scottish Rite temple taken shortly after it was constructed, which you can find on the Denver Public Library’s website, there have been very few changes made to the building.  It appears that the dome was originally clad with a slate shingles or perhaps flat, interlocking clay tile, but otherwise the exterior remains quite similar to its original construction.

There are very few windows on the building, and normally a building with large expanses of flat masonry would look odd and fortress-like, but instead the few, delicately detailed windows and the simple Classical ornament of the Scottish Rite temple lend it an appearance of elegant grandeur.  Take the entry, for example; accessed via a wide staircase of pink granite, the imposing bronze doors are flanked by enormous fluted terra-cotta columns and a heavy entablature.  The flat terra cotta surrounding the entry is slightly recessed from the rest of the facade, which lends the entry greater prominence. It is truly an elegant composition.

Several masonic symbols are present on the exterior of the Scottish Rite temple, including a double-headed eagle at the crest of the western pediment.  The metal eagles carry a pyramid with the number 32 on their heads.  According to Colorado Consistory No. 1, the double-headed eagle is meant to “symbolize the double jurisdiction of the Council–one which looked both to the East and to the West”.  The triangle is a symbol of the divinity, and 32 refers to the 32nd degree, the highest degree a member may attain (except the 33rd degree, which is honorary).

The Scottish Rite temple provides an elegantly curved corner where it meets the right angles of Grant Street and 14th Avenue.  Like the rest of the building, the corner has restrained ornament, including a band of terra-cotta flowers and acanthus leaves shown in the bottom of the photo above, and a simple balustrade at the parapet.  I was curious about the accretion at the cornice until I saw the frenzied activities of bees at their hive over the summer.

I was also intrigued by a color change in the terra cotta a few courses up from the granite base, which you can see below.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is an anti-graffiti coating that was applied to the terra cotta along the sidewalk to protect it from spray paint.  Unfortunately it has become discolored over time, or perhaps there was a chemical reaction with the glaze of the terra cotta that darkened the coating.  Either way, it creates an interesting, though unfortunate, datum line across the base of the building.

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Kenneth McDonald Building in Boulder

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a college friend who lives in Boulder with her husband and their adorable son.  Before I headed back to Denver, I had some time to wander around the city.  Much of the building stock in Boulder dates to the late twentieth century, but there are several interesting historic buildings downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

This small sandstone structure was one of the first that caught my eye.  The Kenneth McDonald Building, at 1039 Pearl Street, houses The Kitchen restaurant.

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The base of the building is cast iron, but the second floor and cornice are a lovely red-orange sandstone that has delicately carved ornament.  The top of the building has the name Kenneth McDonald carved into a frieze flanked by two wreaths surrounding the numbers 18 and 99.

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Although the façade suggests that the building was erected in 1899 by Kenneth McDonald, the Kenneth McDonald Building is actually an earlier structure.  According to the City Planning office, the building appears on the 1883 Sanborn map of Boulder – the city’s earliest detailed map of buildings – and was owned by Anthony Arnett.  It was probably erected in about 1880, or a few years earlier.  Arnett was an early settler of Boulder.  He came west during the California Gold Rush, but settled in Colorado in the late 1850s when he realized he could make money investing in mines and ranching.  Arnett later purchased and developed real estate in the Boulder area.  In the mid-1870s, he built the Arnett Block (which later became the Arnett Hotel) at 1025 Pearl Street just to the west of the Kenneth McDonald Building.  In 1899, the building at 1039 Pearl Street was purchased by Kenneth McDonald.  McDonald was a miner who opened a saloon on the ground floor, and had the existing building refaced with red sandstone.

Over the past 115 years, the sandstone has fallen into disrepair.  Dark carbon deposits have formed on the bottom of the cornice, and erosion is typical at the cornice and parapet levels.  Open joints also allow water to travel deeper into the masonry.

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But much of the carving is still as crisp as it was the day it was erected.  The crisp details of the foliage on the impost block, below, looks as though the carver recently put down his tools.  The carved stone behind the foliage is also crisply textured, while the egg-and-dart moldings surrounding the arched windows have had almost no erosion.  The durability of the stone, combined with Boulder’s arid weather, have allowed this building to outlast many of its owners.  Hopefully with a little bit of repair work, the building will outlast the current owners, too.

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Sloppy Mortar

Let’s look a little more closely at mortar – a key component of masonry construction.  Most of the time when a brick wall is laid up, mortar is installed flush to the face of the brick, or perhaps it has a concave or an incised appearance.  But sometimes you see sloppy mortar that projects out past the masonry, such as in the photo below.

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Usually when you see sloppy mortar on a wall, it is a clue that the wall was never meant to be visible.  When he was erecting the building, the mason of this wall probably took care to create nice, smooth mortar joints at the interior of the building.  But for the exterior, the mason probably could not clean up the mortar joints because there was another wall laid up against it.  His sloppy mortar work was exposed only when the adjacent building was demolished to create this garden.  It was entirely unintentional.

Sometimes, however, sloppy mortar was an intentional choice of the architect.  There is a style of mortar in the Front Range that I have never noticed back east: ‘weeping mortar’.  From what I can tell, it seems to have been popular between the 1930s and 1950s – perhaps even slightly later – and it entailed allowing the mortar to ooze out of the masonry while the wall was being constructed.  I saw this Tudor-Revival style building with weeping mortar joints on the University of Colorado campus a few weeks ago.

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It was built in 1931 as the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house, and was designed by celebrated Boulder architect Glen H. Huntington [pdf] (not to be confused with his father, Glen W. Huntington, an architect who practiced primarily in Denver).  The house was purchased by CU in 1970 and currently serves as the University Administration Building.  It was made using beautiful red and brown flashed brick, whose colors are created through a deliberate manipulation of the chemicals and temperatures in the kiln.  You can see the gray mortar ‘weeping’ out of the joints in the photo below.

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Usually a mason scrapes the mortar off the brick when he adds a new course of brick, but for this building the mortar spills were left on the brick intentionally.  The same technique was used for the small adjacent building – the University Administration Annex at 924 Broadway.

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Weeping mortar gives the masonry an interesting texture, to say the least.  I have seen the same treatment on a concrete block hotel building on East Colfax in Denver, in several mid-century neighborhoods, and on a few other buildings in the Denver suburbs.

UPDATE: I have been asked several times by homeowners whether weeping mortar can be removed. The short answer is, sure, all mortar can be removed (in theory). But I suppose the real answer depends on a the strength of the mortar, and the workmanship of the mason who will be removing it.  Weeping mortar would need to be carefully chipped off with a chisel.  An errant chisel blow to the mortar could chip the face of the brick.  Once the weeping mortar was removed, the mortar between the bricks would need to be cut back at least 1/2″ behind the face of the brick to allow the mason to repoint the mortar with a flush or concave tooling.  Weeping mortar joints are typically wider than the narrow late-19th century “butter” joints, but it would not difficult for a mason who was removing mortar to cut into the brick using a grinder.  Great care would need to be taken to prevent damage to the brick when removing weeping mortar.  In addition, the stronger the weeping mortar, the harder it will be to remove.  Weeping mortar was used on Depression-era and mid-century structures, so I would guess the mortar contained more cement than earlier mortar mixes, giving it strength and durability.  So, yes, weeping mortar can be removed from brick, but as with most repair and rehabilitation projects, it is important to hire a skilled contractor with experience working on older structures.

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