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Masonic lodge face-lift sent back to the drawing board, again

Tuesday, September 3, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

After the Historic Landmark Commission vetoed designs for a modern addition to the Royal Arch Masonic Lodge on the corner of Seventh and Lavaca for being a “desecration” of a landmark, a new design came before them at their Aug. 26 meeting.

Brett Rhode of Rhode Partners maintained the design brought something “extraordinary” to the streetscape, and did so in a “very sophisticated way” with a “light touch.”

Yet commissioners still found the modern addition to be out of step with the historical structure.

“You may call it a light touch,” Commissioner Ben Heimsath said, but, “the design, it barely tolerated this building.”

Commissioner Terri Myers echoed Heimsath’s sentiments, saying, “What we have here are an apple and a banana. They’re two completely different animals.”

Nevertheless, the commission was unwilling to completely scrap the project. Due to space restrictions limiting design, and the desire to allow the Masons to continue operating in their ancestral lodge, the commission unanimously postponed the case to next month and sent it before the commission’s Certificate of Appropriateness Committee to help iron out the design.

While the commissioners failed to see a relationship between the proposed 30-story glass tower and the three-story brick lodge from which it rose, they were not opposed to the idea of fusing a new design with the old structure. Commissioner Heimsath pointed to the opera house in Lyon, France, as a shining example of how to rehabilitate a historic monument and bring it into the 21st century.

However, the architects are limited in their creativity by the scale of the Masonic lodge. “To really achieve the massing and the proportion is just going to be so difficult,” Commissioner Witt Featherston said. “I don’t think we can achieve that on this footprint.”

Scale was the focal point of the commission’s discussion. Commissioner Kevin Koch suggested that perhaps the project architects should go back to the drawing board and begin with the financials to understand what the minimum necessary height would need to be in order to cover construction costs and the rehabilitation of the old lodge.

He likewise suggested that Rhode present a rendering of the building from a pedestrian’s view. He noted that although the tower may look disparate from the building on paper, when passersby view the lodge from street level, their perspective will not naturally include the tower; they would have to look up or see it from a distance, he explained.

The street-facing facades of the Masonic lodge will remain unchanged, according to Rhode.

Commissioner Mathew Jacob, who echoed sentiments about wanting to see more continuity between the two buildings, said, “Some of the members of the Masonic lodge came up in support of the building.” He emphasized that the commission should take into consideration the support of the current owners of the building.

In an effort to tread carefully and ensure that the final designs are complementary to the existing historic structure as well as set an exemplary precedent for future adaptive reuse projects, the commission made it clear that they were going to spend their time getting this one right.

“I want to help. I’m not opposed to an addition, but Secretary of Interior’s Standards again say they should be secondary to the historic property,” said Myers.

Commissioners Beth Valenzuela, Alex Papavasiliou, Blake Tollett and Emily Reed were absent.

This story has been corrected, to change “royal arts” to “royal arch” as that is the proper name. Rendering via the city of Austin.

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