Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Seven Lamps of Architecture

As a member of the board of the Indianapolis Masonic Temple Association, it's no secret that I have a deep and abiding love and reverence for the preservation of the important buildings of our past—not just Freemasonry, but of society itself. It goes back a long way in my life: from the days when my father restored a tumbledown mansion in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to my early teenage years involved with the Indiana Railway Museum and Indianapolis Union Station.

John Ruskin's "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" is a fascinating book. Written in 1857, he expounds on the substance and purpose of architecture, being careful to separate it from mere "building." He calls each broad concept a different "lamp," providing "light" in various ways: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience. In his chapter, The Lamp of Memory, he says this of Architecture and Memory:

We may live without her architecture, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her. How cold is all history, how lifeless all imagery, compared to that which the living nation writes, and the uncorrupted marble bears! How many pages of doubtful record might we not often spare, for a few stones left one upon another! The ambition of the old Babel builders was well directed for this world: there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality; it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life. The age of Homer is surrounded with darkness, his very personality with doubt. Not so that of Pericles: and the day is coming when we shall confess, that we have learned more of Greece out of the crumbled fragments of her sculpture than even from her sweet singers or soldier historians. And if indeed there be any profit in our knowledge of the past, or any joy in the thought of being remembered hereafter, which can give strength to present exertion, or patience to present endurance, there are two duties respecting national architecture whose importance it is impossible to overrate; the first, to render the architecture of the day, historical; and, the second, to preserve, as the most precious of inheritances, that of past ages.


Too many of our masonic temples are being lost every day because of a deliberate disregard for their history, their beauty, and as Ruskin so beautifully puts it, their memory. No, Freemasonry is not a building. But the buildings, the temples, are a part of what we are. And the temples built by our great-grandfathers, whether magnificent or humble, are deserving of all of the respect and care we can muster. Too many times lodge trustees pitch these overboard without exhausting every possibility of saving them. The brethren who came before us expected us to do greater things, not lesser ones. And how sad they would be to know we would shove their achievements overboard, only to move to a steel pole barn in a corn field, simply because the roof they put over our heads was costly to repair. They scrimped and sacrificed to create meeting spaces filled with detail and love. The least we can do is keep them painted, cleaned and ready for a generation that does not think of them as a white elephant.

Not every masonic building is a masterpiece, worth saving at any cost. And we have too many buildings for a membership of our current size. But too many irreplaceable temples are gone, and more are in danger.

As Ruskin says,

What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength, and wealth, and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death ; still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buildings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss we have no right to inflict.

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