BEMIDJI -- The Watermark Art Center has used a $250,000 anonymous donation to purchase the former Bemidji Masonic Temple on the corner of Fifth Street and Bemidji Avenue North.
Watermark director Lori Forshee-Donnay said Wednesday the building will be razed to make way for green space. The art center plans to move from its space in the Carnegie Library building into the former Lakeside Lueken’s store just north of the Masonic Temple.
“This, we think, will be a nice amenity for downtown,” Forshee-Donnay said. “Green space within urban areas is always highly desirable.”
The 90-year-old building, one of the few remaining Minnesota structures built specifically for the Masons, has seen better days. As lodge master Robert Saddoris recounted in a letter, the temple’s water lines burst in last year’s frigid winter, causing extensive water damage that cost too much for the Masons to repair. Combined with damage to an aging roof, it would have required an estimated $600,000 to $1 million to repair the building, he said.
The anonymous donation was specifically earmarked for the “acquisition, demolition and development of the Masonic site”, according to a Watermark news release.
Forshee-Donnay said her organization was excited for the space’s potential as an outdoor extension of the new Watermark Art Center. She was emphatic that the space would not become a parking lot, as some had feared. Rather, Watermark intends for the site to become a park-like space for outdoor art and public gatherings, Forshee-Donnay said.
The new open space will help encourage people to go from the lakeshore to downtown, she said.
According to Saddoris, the final nail in the Masonic building’s coffin was when its boiler was condemned as unsafe.
“This was the probable last blow for anyone looking to use the building for a business, apartments, theater or whatever their ideas were for usage,” Saddoris wrote.
Saddoris closed the letter by saying everything had been done to rescue the building, but it was time to focus on the road ahead.
“(W)e have gone the distance on trying to save the building and have met a wall at every turn,” he said. “(We) are ready to say goodbye to the building to save our 114-year Masonic history and to look to Masonic future in Bemidji, for many more years.”
On Wednesday, Saddoris said the prospect of the old lodge’s demolition was saddening, but the Masons’ new lodge at a former tae kwon do studio on the south edge of town was more practical.The new space has allowed handicapped members attend gatherings, whereas the design of the old building prevented them from entering.
“It just made my heart warm,” he said of seeing handicapped members enter the new building. “They could have never gotten into the old lodge.”
The sale of the old lodge also puts the Masons out of debt, he said.
“We’re relieved that it’s sold,” he said. “We’ll be totally out of debt.”