By Rachael Finch, Executive Director, and Grace Abernethy, Director of Preservation
For decades, myth and mystery characterized the fraternal organization of Freemasonry, shrouded in centuries of politics and power. While there is not a “treasure” at the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall, the building, complete with its collections and incredible historic finishes, is a priceless historic resource. The Hall, constructed c. 1823 to 1826, blends Gothic architecture and country craftsmanship. In the early 19th century, distant cosmopolitan cities such as Philadelphia, served as examples of architectural and cultural inspiration for many county seats in Middle Tennessee. Small town surveyors west of the Appalachian Mountains modeled the street grid patterns that defined a central square. According to historian Lisa Tolbert, “…by the 1790s, Abram Maury, used it for Franklin, Tennessee, naming the town after Philadelphia’s most famous citizen.”1
Placement of significant buildings, including courthouses and churches, played prominent roles in Franklin’s early development. Despite their “symbolic placement and accessibility” they were not “the largest nor the finest building in town.”2 For Franklin, the Masonic Hall, reaching above all other early 19th century structures in town, became one of the most central buildings in the community.3 Though the architect for the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall remains unknown, the sincere imitation of William Strickland’s design (1809-1811) of the original Philadelphia Masonic Temple cannot be underestimated in regards to its influence on the architecture of the Franklin Masonic Hall. While Strickland’s blend of Georgian Gothic design provided prominence within the political, social and cultural townscape, so too did the Franklin Masonic Hall.4
Image: “Masonic Hall, Philadelphia,” lithograph, 1813. HSP large graphics collection (call number Bc 05 S917a), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
While there is little doubt enslaved skilled brick masons constructed the Hall’s Flemish bond exterior, the attention to interior architectural details, including doors, millwork, flooring, paint, and wallpaper was clearly intentional. The Masonic Hall’s team of skilled artisans and craftsmen remain relatively unknown, however. Early research demonstrates artisans and craftsmen had businesses in Franklin between 1820-1830, including T. Swain, who advertised in the Independent Gazette in May 1822 that he “returned to Franklin and will continue to carry on the art of Chairmaking in all its various branches…pledging to make as strong and elegant work as any in the United States…He will also carry on the Painting, Glazing, and Paper-Hanging Business…”5
The Historic Franklin Masonic Hall received several architectural exterior and interior cosmetic alterations over its nearly-two hundred year history. In many ways, it retains much of its original appearance, a rarity among Tennessee’s remaining historic buildings standing from the early 19th century, and beneath modern paint layers lie its historic interior finishes, waiting to be rediscovered. Historians and old home owners alike can glean valuable insights by examining a building’s historic surfaces. A careful study of finishes reveals the aesthetic tastes of the building’s owners as well as clues to how they used various spaces in the structure at different times. On the regional level, this sort of analysis provides a window into the machinations and demographics of the workforce, the availability of certain materials, and the level of craftsmanship available at a specific point in time. At Franklin’s Masonic Hall, the historic finishes also impart information pertaining to 19th century Masonic symbolism and ritual.
Since January 2018, the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall Foundation has been conducting an in-depth investigation into the building’s finishes. This research yielded a surprisingly complete chronicle of the historic interior’s various incarnations. The process entails off-site and on-site investigation by staff and qualified consultants. First, a historic paint analyst microscopically and chemically analyzed samples and identified key finishes. On site, staff scoured the walls for hidden paint and wallpaper. To date, four historic wallpapers have been found, as well as an overwhelming amount of Civil War graffiti stemming from Federal occupation (1862-1865) and the Hall’s use as a hospital for soldiers following the horrific battle scenes at Franklin November 30 and December 17, 1864. The most recent step in the process has been to reveal important painted finishes, specifically those that microscopic analysis identified as possible decorative finishes.
Decorative finishes were extremely popular in 19th century interiors. Numerous written guides from this period exist, instructing glaziers on how to execute an array of faux finishes, usually imitating various types of stone and wood. The purpose of a faux finish is to make a surface appear to be made from some material that it is not through the application of a series of painted and glazed layers. While 19th century decorative finishes usually imitated more expensive materials, the process became an art form, and hiring a glazier or grainer to execute high quality decorative painting could be more expensive than having that element crafted out of the real material.
The Masonic Hall’s original decorative finishes, executed around 1826, are remarkably high quality (particularly when compared to later finishes) and somewhat unusual. Two finishes in particular stand out: a faux mahogany graining on the second floor doors and a marbleized finish on the third floor lodge doors. Faux mahogany was perhaps the most popular of decorative finishes for doors in early 19th century American buildings. Faux mahogany was executed various ways but was usually a three-layer finish involving a light yellow or pink base coat, a translucent reddish-brown glaze manipulated to mimic the wood grain, and an over-glaze of the same translucent reddish-brown. The base coat provided a warm hue, and the layering of translucent glazes gave depth to the finish, rendering it a convincing imitation of wood.
2nd Floor Faux Mahogany
The faux mahogany finish on the Masonic Hall’s second floor doors, however, was executed in a more striking manner. Here the base coat is bright red, spread thinly and evenly so that no brush strokes are visible in its dried surface, with a brown figuring and an over-glaze applied on top. The painter embellished the door’s panels with a feathered edge and an inset, pale yellow border and applied a protective coat of varnish over the completed work. Nathaniel Whittock identified this bold approach as an imitation of Spanish mahogany in his 1828 publication, The decorative painters’ and glaziers’ guide:
“This species of [Spanish] mahogany differs greatly from the last specimen [Honduran]. The ground is a much richer tint, the mottle is much more varied, and if executed properly, it is the highest test of the grainer’s art.”6
Image: Early 19th century faux mahogany graining on the Masonic Hall’s 2nd floor hall doors.
This spectacular decorative finish was first detected in a microscopic cross-section from the paint analysis. Faux grained finishes are easily identified with this method; they are multi-layered with a base coat layer, and several layers of glaze and varnish. The photograph below shows a sample from this door, in which several generations of graining can be seen. The c. 1826 faux mahogany graining is made up of (working from the bottom of the photograph upwards) a beige primer, red base coat, and several translucent layers of glaze and varnish. Incidentally, the two finishes that replaced the c. 1826 faux mahogany were also faux grained and can be seen below (the first has a tan base and dates to c. 1870, the second has a pinkish base and dates to c. 1916).
Image: Cross-section of paint sample from the door. The red base coat for the graining is easily seen in the cross-section.
3rd Floor Faux Marble
Marbleizing was another popular 19th century decorative finish. Often found on baseboards, plinth blocks, and fireplaces, the marbleizing at the Masonic Hall appears in an unusual location: on the third floor door panels in the lodge room. The rails and stiles of the door are painted with a monochromatic, well-ground gray oil paint. All of the drama here occurs on the marbleized panels. This finish consists of a pale blue-gray base, dark blue-gray, free-hand painted veining, and a thick border of the same blue-gray around the panel’s perimeter. Study of this finish suggests that it was one with which the painter was less practiced.
Image: Marbleized panel on third floor Royal Arch door, c. 1826.
Study and identification of these decorative finishes reveals some interesting clues about the Masonic Hall’s original craftsmen. One: the painters who worked on the Hall were trained and highly skilled, surprisingly so for what was still in many respects a town on the edge of America. It is possible that these men received training on America’s east coast or from someone with ties to the east coast or Europe. Two: the designer understood the color wheel and its proximal relationships. He realized that the red found in the faux graining base played off the second floor hall’s bold Prussian blue surrounding woodwork and cream faux stone walls more effectively than a faux finish with a pastel base would.
Today, the Hall continues to serve as the meeting place of Hiram Lodge No. 7, the oldest continually occupied lodge to exist in its original location in Tennessee. As a Masonic Hall, it is one of ten of the oldest halls standing in the United States. And as such, its designation as a National Historic Landmark (1973) requires tremendous care given to every aspect of the preservation efforts to restore its historic architectural elements and interiors. As historic preservationists continue their work, much research remains to be done on this remarkable building, which ties into so many aspects of Franklin’s, middle Tennessee’s, and America’s history. The work, however, is off to a good start, and the history and future of Franklin’s historic Masonic Hall look promising as we uncover its historic interior mysteries.
1 – Lisa C. Tolbert, Constructing Townscapes: Space and Society in Antebellum Tennessee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 23.
2 – Tolbert, 42.
3 – Ibid., 42.
4 – James Patrick, Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981), 151.
5 – Independent Gazette, May 22, 1863. Williamson County Archives.
6 – Nathaniel Whittock, The decorative painters’ and glaziers’ guide (London: Isaac Taylor Hinton, 1828), 35.