For more than 100 years, the Grand Masonic Lodge of Massachusetts has towered over Boylston and Tremont streets.
Each day thousands of Bostonians, students and tourists pass the intimidating granite building with the blue tile murals that display symbols and objects important to the somewhat secretive fraternity. But few have explored the building’s mysterious interior halls.
Now that’s beginning to change. After centuries of clandestine, closed-doors activity, the Grand Masonic Lodge of Massachusetts is opening its doors -- at least on select occasions -- and sharing its historic meeting halls and lodges with the public.
“It’s more about awareness than anything else,” said Christopher Rooney, Grand Lodge associate director of communications and development. “We feel that it’s in the best interest of the fraternity itself to let the community interact with us and let them answer the questions for themselves.”
The freemasons, the oldest and largest all-male fraternity in the world, were formally established in 1717 in London, England. In 1733, Henry Price founded the first Grand Lodge in Boston, Mass. The freemasons, as stated by their mission, aim to make “good men even better” through the “belief that each man has a responsibility to improve himself while being devoted to his family, faith, country and fraternity.”
But just how this is done has remained something of a mystery to those outside the order.
In 2005, the Masons decided to open up their historic meeting rooms and chambers to public tours and, said Communications Development Director Robert Huke, the response has been positive.
“Basically [opening our doors to the public] started from a recognition by one of our past grand masters that we needed to do a better job of letting the community know who we are and what we are all about,” he said.
The 45-minute guided tour takes individuals through the hallways of the Grand Lodge. With a current member of the Masonic lodge as the tour guide, visitors walk through the large Masonic meeting halls, view portraits and artifacts of significant and historical freemasons including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and learn about some of the secrets of the building and of the Masonic order.
“People who work in the area say they’ve passed by the building thousands of times but never could imagine what is really inside the building,” said Huke. “There is a point of pride for us to have [this building] to share with people”
Over the decades, the fraternity has been somewhat infamously seen as a secret society that shares very few details of its practices, rituals and order with the public. In recent years, the freemasons have garnered more attention in pop culture through the release of movies and books such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Disney’s “National Treasure.”
Steven Bullock, professor of History at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and author of Revolutionary Brotherhood, said that it’s the recent resurgence of freemasonry in pop culture that has led the masons to be open about their history and practices.
“There was a lot of fear that the Dan Brown book --The Lost Symbol, was going to be something which was negative, and would sort of make freemasonry look bad,” said Bullock.
“As a historian, I recognize that there has been all sorts of periods when masonry has been seen as a dangerous kind of thing.”
In a response to Brown’s novel, which, noted one review noted, portrays the freemasons as something of an elite private boys’ club, the Masonic Society, The Masonic Service Association of North America, and the George Washington Masonic Memorial pushed back.
They released their own review of the novel and found, “Dan Brown’s treatment of Freemasonry is overwhelmingly positive in The Lost Symbol, but [that] he does engage in some dramatic license [about freemasonry] for the sake of his plot.”
Bullock said he doubts even the new “open-door” mindset of the freemasons will stop people from theorizing about the order.
“Clearly there will continue to be conspiracy-minded people who are deeply fearful of all sorts of things, and I don’t know if [opening their doors] will necessarily deal with these people, but people who don’t know much will come in and realize [the Masonic lodges] tend to be sort of friendly places.”
Aside from the general tours held during the week, the Freemasons held their 9th annual Square and Compass Day On Oct. 19. The event featured tours of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and one-on-one meetings with current Masonic members.
Taleen Lachinian, a 19-year-old finance student from Boston University didn’t know what to expect when she first came to the open house but left tour with a positive perspective.
“I think the facts [the tour guides] presented were awesome,” said Lachinian. “Obviously, I still don’t know what goes on in the meetings, but it’s just cool to know that it’s a place that isn’t completely secretive. It’s open to the public.”
Bryan Devissiere, 21, of Fairfield, Conn, drove up just for the open house having been a freemasons enthusiast for a long time.
“Twenty [or] thirty years ago, there would never be anything like this… open tours of their lodge,” said Devissiere.
“Now that there are so many bad things being said about them, within the media, like ‘devil worshippers’…They kind of want to clear things up and show people they’re not that secretive, nothing really makes them that different than your average human being.”
Rooney explained that if people or skeptics want to learn about the lodge and the freemasons, they should tour the building.
“When you look at the significant [historical] spaces here in Boston, you have the Old State House, Fenway Park, and then, in my viewpoint, you have the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts,” said Rooney.
“I think those are some of the mainstays for old buildings people should come out to see in Boston.”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.