Forgotten Treasures: Unveiling the Hidden History and Endangered Legacy of Franklin’s Masonic Hall

Because of its association with the past and much that went into the making of the early history of the state, [the Masonic Hall] is a sacred relic to the people of Franklin and Williamson County.

-The Nashville Tennessean, January 27, 1924

The passage of time can be a relentless thing. Memories dull, stories die, weeds grow, and bricks crumble. And yet, the world keeps spinning, changing, growing until certain parts of the past, both the tangible and intangible, are lost forever. 

Mason Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography 2

The Hiram Lodge No. 7 Masonic Hall is one such piece of history that’s in danger of this fate. It sits on Franklin’s Second Avenue South behind a makeshift plywood wall and in the shadow of a parking garage. Each day, scores of people walk or drive by the building. The more discerning passersby may pause, gaze up at its Gothic Revival facade, and ponder what stories might be hidden inside. Many pass by without a second look.

Mason Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography

Indeed, the true depths of the Masonic Hall’s history remain a mystery to most. Few know of the Civil War-era graffiti and bayonet holes on a wall that’s now compromised by water damage. Or the doors with their original, marbleized finish on the third floor, which is now off-limits due to safety concerns. Or the incredible, early 20th-century screens that depict Christ’s ascension, tucked behind a curtain on the second level.

Mason Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography

This lack of public knowledge is a travesty because the Masonic Hall’s history truly is one of the richest in Franklin. Not only that, many experts agree it’s one of the most significant historic buildings in the entire South. In 1973, it was declared a National Historic Landmark–the only other property in Williamson County to receive such a designation is the Franklin Battlefield. Additionally, the Masonic Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s.

AN ARCHITECTURAL MARVEL

Before the construction of their own building, Hiram Lodge No. 7 met in various locations around town, such as the courthouse, which was then located in the center of the public square.

Drawing of 1809 Williamson County Courthouse, courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
Drawing of 1809 Williamson County Courthouse, courtesy of Rick Warwick

The lodge (a Masonic term that refers to the members, not the meeting house) had the Masonic Hall erected between 1823 and 1826, using funds raised by Tennessee’s first legal lottery. The bricks used in the construction were handmade by enslaved people, and their fingerprints are still sprinkled all over the exterior, forever baked into the red clay.

In the introduction of Mary Trim Anderson’s book Landmarks: The Restoration Movement and the Franklin Area, Pastor James Marvin Powell writes, “When the [Masonic Hall] was built, it was the finest structure in the state of Tennessee.” Truly, this building was an architectural marvel in its day. Designed by a man whom history remembers as simply “Mr. Maney,” it’s a unique mix of Gothic Revival and Federal styles.

However, Gothic architecture didn’t gain popularity in America until 1840, about 14 years after the construction of the Masonic Hall. A 1978 Tennessean article contains the following quote from John Kiser, an expert on Middle Tennessee architecture: “[The Masonic Hall] reads like a Who’s Who in architecture history. If it were on the East Coast where most of the writing on architecture is done, it would be a textbook example rather than an unknown quantity.”

Mason Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography

The Masonic Hall also was ahead of its time structurally. It was the first three-story building in Tennessee. At the time of construction, it was the tallest edifice west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Today, the Masonic Hall has been far surpassed in height, but its advanced age has earned it another distinction: the oldest Gothic Revival structure in Tennessee. It’s also the oldest public building in Franklin (no small feat in a town known for its historic properties).

Franklin's Masonic Hall

With movies and books like National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code perpetuating a narrative of secrecy regarding the Masons, it might be surprising to hear the Masonic Hall referred to as a “public” building. However, thanks to the generosity of the Masons, this structure actually has a long and varied history as a shared community space.

Mason Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography

ONE FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS

In Franklin’s early days, no other building in town was large enough to comfortably accommodate a crowd. Therefore, the Masonic Hall played host to countless events, including religious services, political assemblies, even the domestic competition for a county fair in 1857. However, the most notable of these gatherings was the meeting of the Chickasaw Treaty Council.

Chickasaw Treaty by Robert H. Turner, courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
Chickasaw Treaty by Robert H. Turner, courtesy of Rick Warwick

In August 1830, President Andrew Jackson, Secretary of War John Eaton (who actually lived next door to the Masonic Hall), and Jackson’s chief negotiator General John Coffee converged on Franklin to meet with leaders of the Chickasaw Nation.

Their purpose was to negotiate the terms of a treaty that would grant the United States government the last of the Chickasaw lands east of the Mississippi River. The Native Americans were to migrate west of the territory of Arkansas and receive $15,000 annually for the next 20 years, along with other provisions.

This was a landmark event—the first and only time a sitting president met with Native Americans to work out a treaty for land. President Jackson delivered a persuasive speech to the tribal delegates at the old Presbyterian Church in Franklin, and a few days later, the group gathered on the steps of the Masonic Hall for the Chickasaws’ response.

Peggy Eaton | Lovely Franklin
Peggy Eaton

Dressed in full regalia, the tribal leaders accepted the terms of the treaty. The document was signed under a locust tree in Eaton’s yard near the corner of Second Avenue South and East Main Street. Eaton’s wife, Peggy, had her piano moved to their front porch and provided entertainment for the crowd outside. Click here to read more about the Eatons and the infamous “Petticoat Affair” they were embroiled in.

After the signing, President Jackson and the Chickasaw representatives participated in a peace pipe ceremony inside the Masonic Hall. Tragically, this celebratory occasion didn’t mark the start of a harmonious relationship. The treaty would ultimately result in the tribe’s removal to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.

A PLACE OF WORSHIP

Bishop James Otey, courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
Bishop James Otey, courtesy of Rick Warwick

As Franklin’s unofficial civic center, the Masonic Hall also has been the temporary home of many young churches that didn’t yet have buildings. Records show it has hosted services for every major denomination in Franklin.

In fact, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was organized at the Masonic Hall on August 25, 1827 under the leadership of Bishop James H. Otey.

This was the first Episcopal congregation in Tennessee. Since the Masonic Hall had no piano, the next-door neighbor Peggy Eaton, true to form, had her piano moved near an open window in her home and accompanied the hymns during services. The congregation met at the Masonic Hall until their church (another Gothic Revival building) on West Main Street was completed in 1834.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, courtesy of Rick Warwick
Andrew Campbell, circa 1855 | Lovely Franklin
Andrew Campbell, circa 1855

Franklin’s Church of Christ congregation also has ties to the Masonic Hall. Andrew Campbell, a 19th-century evangelist who was instrumental in the Restoration Movement, came to Franklin in December 1830. He preached in several local meeting houses, including the Masonic Hall.

Most historic sources agree Campbell’s series of sermons laid the groundwork for the establishment of a Church of Christ congregation in Franklin three years later. Services continued to be held at the Masonic Hall until a building was constructed between 1851 and 1852. The present-day Fourth Avenue Church of Christ is the direct descendant of this early work by Campbell and his associates.

Fourth Avenue Church of Christ’s first building, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Likewise, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, organized in 1871, met at the Masonic Hall before constructing their own building on West Main Street. According to the church’s historian Judith L. Policastro, the congregation walked in procession from the Masonic Hall to their new church when the cornerstone was laid in 1876. The ceremony was conducted with Masonic rituals.

Cumberland Presbyterian Church - Historic Franklin TN

Even as recently as the mid-20th century, the Masonic Hall served as a temporary church space. In the 1970s, St. Philip Catholic Church held its Sunday School services in the Masonic Hall while their building was expanded.

St. Philip Catholic Church | Lovely Franklin
St. Philip Catholic Church

THE CIVIL WAR YEARS

The Masonic Hall was a hotbed of activity throughout the Civil War years. In the spring of 1861, following the secession of the Southern states, local women and their enslaved workers gathered at the Masonic Hall to sew Confederate uniforms.

As Adelicia McEwen German later recalled in her memoir, “They met with their sewing machines, some cut, others basted, and many ran the machines. They talked as women will do and worked from early morn until it was too dark to see.” Many of these ladies went on to make their own mark on Franklin’s history, including Carrie McGavock of Carnton, Mariah Reddick (who was enslaved by the McGavocks), and Sallie Ewing Gaut.

During the Federal occupation of Franklin (1862-1865), the Masonic Hall served as a Federal hospital, quartermaster offices, and barracks for regiments, including the 2nd and 14th Michigan Cavalry. From 1864 to 1865, the U.S. Colored Troops used the building as a hospital and quarters as well. Incredibly, graffiti from these groups of soldiers still cover the interior walls. The men scrawled their names, ranks, and regiments along with various messages.

Mason Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography

While the Federals were in Franklin, they encouraged local Union sympathizers, some of whom were Masons, to hold rallies. On August 21, 1863, a group of Franklin men met at the Masonic Hall to write their “Unionist Manifesto” in preparation for the first rally, scheduled for the following day.

Masonic Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography

The Confederates also used the Masonic Hall during these years. As the tallest edifice in Franklin, it offered the perfect bird’s-eye view of Fort Granger, a Union fortification just north of town. Confederate spies would climb to the third floor where they’d sketch Fort Granger’s layout and estimate the number of troops guarding it.

Aerial of Fort Granger in relation to downtown Franklin, courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
Aerial of Fort Granger in relation to downtown Franklin, courtesy of Rick Warwick

Throughout this period of intense conflict, the Masonic Hall suffered untold damage. Federals broke down the furniture and floors for use as firewood. During the Battle of Franklin in 1864, the building was blasted with cannon fire. By the end of the Civil War, it was in shambles. In January 1912, the federal government paid $2,120 to the Hiram Lodge No. 7 as recompense. These funds were used to repair the Masonic Hall.

Mason Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography Cannon Ball

A RIOT RAGES NEAR THE HALL

Another 19th-century incident connected to the Masonic Hall’s history is the Franklin Race Riot of 1867, a deadly confrontation that began in the public square after a speech riled up two opposing political parties: a biracial group of Conservatives and members of the Colored League. Click here to read more about that tragic encounter.

The conflict shuttered that evening’s meeting of Hiram Lodge No. 7. As a result of the riot, a wrought-iron fence was erected in front of the building for added security. It remains there to this day.

A HUB OF COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IN THE 20TH CENTURY

The wrought-iron railing was erected in response to the 1867 race riot. Courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
The wrought-iron railing was erected in response to the 1867 race riot. Courtesy of Rick Warwick

Throughout the 20th century, the Masonic Hall continued to play an important role in the community. On the cusp of World War I, Franklin citizens organized Company I (the local national guard) and renovated the Masonic Hall’s ground floor for use as an armory. Suffragettes used the building for their meetings. In 1920, the American Legion Auxiliary opened Franklin’s first public library in a room of the Masonic Hall. It operated a few hours a week and was manned by a volunteer librarian, Miss Blossom Amis.

Masonic Hall, courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
Masonic Hall, courtesy of Rick Warwick

MEET THE ILLUSTRIOUS HIRAM LODGE NO. 7

Aside from public use, the Masonic Hall has hosted the meetings of Hiram Lodge No. 7 since the very beginning. In fact, it is the oldest Masonic hall in continuous use in the state. Unlike many lodges, Hiram Lodge No. 7 didn’t even close during the Civil War. However, they may have met in private homes rather than the Masonic Hall throughout that period.

Masonic Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography

As a result, Hiram Lodge No. 7 holds the distinction of retaining its original name and charter longer than any other in Tennessee. It is also known for starting the movement to organize a grand lodge for the state. At Hiram Lodge No. 7’s suggestion, a Masonic convention was held at Knoxville in December 1811 to discuss the formation of this grand lodge.

Hiram Lodge No.7 inside the Masonic Hall circa 1920, photo restored by Dr. James Horner, courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
Hiram Lodge No.7 inside the Masonic Hall circa 1920, photo restored by Dr. James Horner, courtesy of Rick Warwick

The membership roster of Hiram Lodge No. 7 has included many prominent men, such as Felix Grundy, lawyer, congressman, and attorney general in President Van Buren’s cabinet; Guilford Dudley, a Revolutionary War hero; and Oliver B. Hayes, a lawyer, judge, Presbyterian minister and cousin of President Rutherford B. Hayes.

HOW YOU CAN HELP PRESERVE THE MASONIC HALL

Franklin Masonic Hall, Courtesy of Rick Warwick | Lovely Franklin
Courtesy of Rick WarwickFranklin Masonic Hall, Courtesy of Rick Warwick

Hiram Lodge No. 7 has launched numerous fundraisers over the years to preserve the Masonic Hall. Thanks to their ongoing efforts, this incredible building remains an integral part of Franklin’s historic landscape.

However, the maintenance never ends on a 200-year-old building, and repairs are needed again. As of now, the Masons’ priority is fixing the front facade. Water is leaking into the front wall and damaging the northwest corner.

Mason Hall - Lovely Franklin TN - Trenton Lee Photography

Hiram Lodge No. 7 hopes these repairs will allow them to open the building to more people who desire to educate themselves about Franklin’s past. If you want to help preserve this National Historic Landmark, click here to donate.

The Masonic Hall has so many stories to tell, and it’s the community’s responsibility to listen, learn, and ensure those voices are heard for generations to come.

A huge thank you to Trenton Lee Photography for lending his photography talents to this story, as well as Rick Warwick for allowing us access to his collection of historic pictures.

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