History and home collide in former Freemasons building

By Anne-Marie McDonald

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Emma Camden at home in the Lodge Room of the former Freemasons building on Bell St. PHOTO/BEVAN CONLEY
Emma Camden at home in the Lodge Room of the former Freemasons building on Bell St. PHOTO/BEVAN CONLEY

Reporter ANNE-MARIE MCDONALD takes a closer look at the past and present of the former Freemasons Lodge in Bell St.

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When two Auckland-based glass artists came to Whanganui in 2000 looking for a new base, they fell in love with a derelict building on Bell St. Formerly the home of Whanganui's Freemasons, the building was owned at the time by local artist and heritage building enthusiast Ross MItchell-Anyone.

Emma Camden and David Murray knew Ross through mutual friends in the art world, and it was he who encouraged them to move to Whanganui.

"Ross had this vision to bring us here because we both had international careers. His idea was to show arts students in Whanganui that you could function as a successful artist here, just as well as in the big cities.

"We bought it very cheaply - for $60,000," said Emma. "Ross did that very much to encourage us to come here.

"We liked the building because it was inexpensive and there was a big studio space, with a living area upstairs. Everyone thought we were crazy to take the building on because it was such a mess."

Emma said over the past 16 years they've spent about $150,000 doing the building up. They've painted it, installed insulation, replaced the roof and put in a kitchen, a wood burner and a deck.

Emma and David live in the building with their 15-year-old daughter Lola and 12-year-old son Miro, as well as Vincent the dog, Wilson the cat, and several other semi-feral cats. Emma and David have converted the entire ground floor into their glass studio.

On a half-landing is Lola's bedroom. On the first floor is an open-plan kitchen and living area, with a door opening to a sunny deck. Miro's bedroom, David and Emma's bedroom, and "the hall" complete the upper floor.

"The hall" was the Lodge Room, where Freemason meetings were held. While David and Emma have done the room up, they have kept much of the room as it was originally. The elaborately-decorated ceiling, Freemasonry symbols, and the principles of Freemasonry written along the top of the walls, can still be seen in the spacious room.

The hall is currently being used as part of a special exhibition for Tree Gallery, a local gallery set up by Emma and David that specialises in ceramics and photography. An exhibition of photography by Auckland-based photographer Emma Bass has been set up in the hall and people can view it virtually from the Tree Gallery website.

"We haven't really known what to do with the hall until recently, when we put the exhibition in there. It's been used as a bedroom and a skating rink and a storage room at various times," Emma said.

She said the space works well for her and David, as they are able to have a separate work space but still be at home.

As for Lola and Miro, it's the only home they've known.

"They've grown up with a weird spatial awareness. For them, living in a place this big is normal. Other people's homes feel really small and cramped."

Emma said she was attracted by the history of the building, and she made an effort to learn about the Freemason after they moved in. Occasionally a member of the Freemasons will turn up on their door step and ask to have a look around.

"They're really nice people, and we're happy to show them around," she said.

Not so welcome are strangers who occasionally wander in if the front doors are left open, as the building doesn't look like a house and isn't in a residential area.

Emma and David have never pursued an historic classification for the building, because of the red tape involved. But they are committed to the upkeep of the building.

"We respect the building and its history, but it's our family home and so it needs to be practical," Emma said.

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The building was the much-loved home of the Whanganui Freemasons' Tongariro Lodge for 115 years.

Whanganui Freemasonry began with the Tongariro Lodge in 1857 - it's one of the oldest in the country - and members initially met in the Rutland Hotel. After a fire at the hotel in 1868, the lodge moved from one location to another. In 1882 a serious attempt was made to begin fundraising for a dedicated home for the lodge, to be built on the Bell St site which had already been purchased by the lodge.

The cost of the building was 1155 pounds, and much of the work was carried out by Freemason members.

The foundation stone was laid October 1883, and the hall was consecrated in April 1884.

Garry Spooner is a third-generation Freemason who has been involved with the organisation for around 30 years. He is a past Master of the Tongariro Lodge.

"The history of the lodge is really the history of Whanganui," he said. City forefathers John Ballance, William Hogg Watt, and Henry Sarjeant were all members of the lodge.

Garry said the historic link with Whanganui's early settler history can also be found in the Bell St building itself. Much of the timber for the building and the building's furniture came from the Rutland Stockade, which was erected on the top of Queens Park during the land wars.

"Fortunately we were able to retrieve much of the furniture to use in our new building," Garry said.

Garry said the decision was made by the lodge in 1999 to sell the building because it was getting old and needed a lot of maintenance - which was a cost the organisation at the time couldn't afford.

"There was some discussion about installing a lift in the building, because the Lodge Room is upstairs and some of the older members were finding it difficult to walk up the stairs. But in the end the decision was made to move to our current premises in Dublin St.

"A lot of our older members are very fond of the old lodge. It's a beautiful building, and of course everything in it had a lot of symbolism for Freemasons.

"When we initially talked about moving, there were a few over-my-dead-body reactions. This was where the lodge had always been. But we younger ones pointed out that the lodge is about the people, not the building, and it doesn't really matter where we are."

Garry said the current building was ideal, as it brought together all of Whanganui's lodges under one roof.

"It's really a Freemasons' centre. It's a wonderful idea - it means all of our lodges can be together."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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