The Freemasons, a fraternal order known for its secretive symbols and rituals, have a rich history in San Francisco. The Masonic Auditorium in Nob Hill, for instance, is not just a concert venue, but also the state headquarters of Freemasonry. It houses a 50-foot mural filled with soil from over 300 California lodges and is filled with cryptic symbolism. However, academics and members of these fraternal orders suggest that the rituals, hierarchies, and handshakes are not as mysterious as they seem. They were primarily used to foster a sense of community and to keep impostors out, as these orders often provided material assistance to their members in times of need.
Freemasonry, which originated in England in the 1710s and took root in the U.S. in the 1730s, has inspired many other groups such as the Knights Templar, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Columbus. These organizations were particularly important in Gold Rush era San Francisco, providing a community and protection for those who arrived in the city alone. They served as an early form of social safety net, covering burial fees and providing financial support to families in times of injury or illness.
Despite a decline in membership, these fraternal orders have left a lasting legacy in San Francisco. There are still 10 active Masonic lodges in the city, spread across six different buildings. Many of these historic buildings now serve other forms of communal bonding, from religion to exercise. The article provides a glimpse into three of these gathering spaces—an active Odd Fellows Lodge, an active Masonic Lodge, and a repurposed Masonic Lodge—to assess the legacy of these fraternal orders.
However, the landscape of these fraternal orders is changing. Freemasonry is still only open to men, although there is a women-based order tied to the Masons called the Eastern Star. The Independent Order of the Odd Fellows, which has long had an affiliate organization for women known as the Rebekahs, began accepting women in 2000. As society evolves, these traditional fraternal orders are grappling with issues of segregation and exclusion.
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