Freemason of Detroit
George D. Mason’s architectural practice gave form to Detroit in the early high-rise era.
When the cornerstone for the Masonic Temple was laid on Sept. 18, 1922, the Detroit Masons used a trowel that George Washington employed during the building of the U.S. Capitol. // Photograph courtesy of Detroit Public Library.
Not long after the 20th century dawned, George D. Mason decided to brush up on his math. Mason had practiced architecture for nearly 30 years, but wanted to get up to speed on a new trend: reinforced concrete. Setting steel rods inside concrete support columns offered irresistible advantages for building high-rise structures, but required special calculations.
Mason’s study soon paid off. Apartment-house builder Lew Whiting Tuller commissioned a curvaceous 10-story edifice at Park and Bagley avenues, facing Grand Circus Park. The author Michael G. Smith surmises it was meant as an apartment building but became a hotel because of “the exceptional demand for … rooms at the time.”
A characteristic of Mason’s practice was to have a talented designer on staff. While the boss concentrated on the structural engineering, the brilliant Wirt C. Rowland did the exterior design and working drawings. “When the Tuller opened in July 1906, it was the second reinforced concrete hotel in the Midwest and second tallest in the nation,” Smith writes in Designing Detroit: Wirt Rowland and the Rise of Modern American Architecture.
Mason used Julius Kahn’s technique of building with structural concrete. It saved money, eliminated many internal supports, and added the advantage of fire resistance. Kahn was the brother of another of Mason’s former employees, the great Albert Kahn, who had formed Albert Kahn, Architects, and Engineers in 1895 after more than a decade working in Mason’s first practice, Mason and Rice. Albert Kahn went on to design innumerable breathtaking buildings and earned immortality for his industrial designs. The firm, still in Detroit, is today known as Albert Kahn Associates.
With the design work for the Tuller completed, Mason, who was in independent practice after the dissolution of Mason and Rice, accepted the commission to draw a replacement for the Russell House hotel at Woodward Avenue and Cadillac Square, torn down in late 1905. He and Rowland spent New Year’s Day of 1906 finalizing plans for the original Pontchartrain Hotel (since replaced by the First National Building).
Mason, who finished his education in 1873, trained with architect Henry T. Brush before starting Mason and Rice. Historian Clarence M. Burton wrote that Mason “made rapid advancement in the profession, the development of his native powers and the mastery of the scientific principles of the business finding culmination in substantial success.”
Mason was 64 years old when he established George D. Mason and Co. on Jan. 1, 1920, in time to start the new Masonic Temple later that year. Being a 32nd-degree Mason no doubt helped him earn the commission — along with the fact that, years earlier, he had designed the existing Temple on Lafayette Boulevard. Other notable accomplishments were the Detroit Yacht Club, the Gem Theatre, and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island (with Kahn).
For the Masonic Temple, Mason worked in the Gothic style, incorporating two theaters, a Shrine building, two ballrooms, 16 bowling lanes, and a cavernous drill hall with a “sprung” floor set on felt cushions. Seven lodge rooms adopted individual styles deriving from ancient or Classical models. The building, with 1,037 rooms, is even more notable for its bountiful and beautiful sculptures by Corrado Parducci, Leo Friedlander, and Bill Gehrke.
The Masonic joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and continues as an active performance, wedding, and meeting venue. Living nearly 92 years, Mason saw buildings change from pre-Civil War wood-and-brick structures to steel and reinforced-concrete framed ones. He died in 1948 as Modernism began its sweep, bringing glassy uniformity to cities and suburbs across the land.