Mysterious rituals, clandestine meetings, lost treasure, murder: the Freemasons, or “Masons” for short, are a rich source of literary fodder. Real-life Masons, for their part, tend to accept the attention with good humor—however far National Treasure or the latest Dan Brown installment drifts from reality.

Viewed as sinister by some and ridiculously retro by others, the 300-year-old fraternal organization professes a benign mission: “To make good men better.” Members helped bankroll the school that became the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor’s co-founder, John Allen, was a Freemason who later turned into an “anti-Mason.” Masons remained an important local presence well into the twentieth century—in 1925, 5,000 people turned out to witness the dedication of their landmark downtown temple.

But like other fraternal groups, the Freemasons’ numbers have dwindled over the past fifty years. Masonic temples, once enjoying pride of place on Main Streets and town squares, have largely disappeared. In Ann Arbor, their impressive Fourth Avenue building was demolished in 1975, and the Masons retreated to a much smaller structure on the outskirts of town. Now it too is closing. All but one of the Masonic groups still using the temple on West Liberty left at the end of last year.

With the building for sale, some older members wonder how their venerable fraternity will continue. Yet, for the first time in a long while, local Masonic groups have been attracting a steady stream of interested new members.

“I was looking for a new way to expand my circle of friends and community,” recalls Bob Hospadaruk, an outgoing fifty-one-year-old engineer who recently joined Ann Arbor Fraternity Lodge No. 262. “Since all the men in my mother’s family had been Masons, and because of Freemasonry’s colorful history, joining a lodge naturally appealed to me.”

Hosparaduk’s path into the fraternity is typical; most members have some family connection to the organization. His experience parallels my own; my paternal grandfather was a Mason. I decided to join while a grad student in Ireland. I was initially intrigued by Dublin’s picturesque Freemasons’ Hall (a converted Georgian rowhouse filled with curiously decorated rooms and old oil paintings) and the fraternity’s history. But it was the friendships I made in the organization that have kept me involved over the years.

The Freemasons most likely grew from medieval stonemasons’ guilds, though more colorful theories abound. Fourteen U.S. Presidents, from George Washington to Gerald Ford, have been members. In Michigan, member Augustus Woodward made two especially durable contributions: he laid out Detroit’s street system (including Woodward Avenue) and enlisted local religious leaders to drum up support for a catholepistemiad, or school of “universal science.” Of $3,000 in seed money raised to start the school, $2,100 came from Zion Lodge No. 62 and from individual Freemasons. Opened in Detroit in 1817, the school was renamed the University of Michigan in 1821 and moved to Ann Arbor in 1837.

Masons first met in Ann Arbor in 1824 at Allen’s Tavern, a log cabin at what is now the northwest corner of Main and Huron. The village’s first Masonic lodge, Western Star No. 6, was chartered there three years later. General Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan and grand master of Masons in the territory, attended the celebratory ball.

Yet just two years later, the new lodge was forced to disband, a casualty of a wave of anti-Masonic hysteria. The uproar began in 1826 in Batavia, New York, when a bricklayer named William Morgan threatened to publish certain Masonic rituals and recognition signs. Though similar books had been available since the 1720s, local Masons were outraged. Morgan was threatened, harassed, and finally kidnapped. His fate is still disputed. Newspapers reported that Morgan was drowned in Lake Ontario. The kidnappers claimed Morgan, who left behind a grieving wife, was released in Canada with several hundred dollars in hush money.

Morgan’s kidnappers and their co-conspirators faced a series of trials between 1826 and 1831. Only a handful of convictions ensued, all for lesser offenses. When it was revealed that witness tampering had occurred, and that some of the judges and jurors involved were Freemasons, many Americans became convinced a vast Masonic conspiracy was afoot. Members were pressured to resign, and hundreds of lodges closed. In Michigan, Grand Master Cass ordered Masons to suspend their meetings in 1829.

In Washtenaw County, John Allen and Judge Samuel Dexter went a step further—they not only left the fraternity, they made Ann Arbor a hotbed of anti-Masonry. Allen and Dexter bought the village newspaper, The Western Emigrant, in December 1829, and “unfurled the Anti-Masonic banner,” running multiple stories in each issue about the fraternity’s supposed perfidy.

The national agitation briefly gave rise to a political party, and in 1831, Dexter ran for Congress as an Anti-Mason. Though he carried Washtenaw County, he lost the wider election to Austin Wing, running on a Democratic-Masonic ticket.

Freemasonry’s public image began to improve after 1832 when President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat and past grand master of Masons in Tennessee, was re-elected. Nevertheless, Ann Arbor did not have a new Masonic lodge until 1847, when Oriental No. 15 began meeting on the third floor of a commercial building at 109 North Main. It was joined there in 1850 by Washtenaw Chapter No. 6, Royal Arch Masons. Oriental No. 15 evidently inspired the name of a business, the Orient, in the same building. Variously described as a bar or barbershop / cigar store, it was later immortalized in a U-M glee club song—and long outlived the lodge, which by 1856 had succumbed to the twin blows of Gold Rush fever and internal discord. It closed and was replaced by Ann Arbor No. 85.

Masonic lodges, reviled as hotbeds of conspiracy a generation earlier, were by then welcomed as civic assets. As Americans moved from farms to cities, the Masons and other fraternal groups offered more than places to socialize; many provided insurance programs and mutual aid during a time without public safety nets. A town with a Masonic lodge found it easier to attract other assets like railroad depots and colleges or vie for status as the county seat.

In 1865, two new Masonic groups were formed: Golden Rule Lodge No. 159 and Ann Arbor Commandery No. 13, Knights Templar. They shared the old hall at 109 North Main for a few years before arranging to lease a larger space at 215–217 South Main. While Ann Arbor No. 85 debated whether to join them, its charter document—required to conduct Masonic meetings—was stolen. Ann Arbor No. 85 was forced to dissolve, reforming shortly thereafter as Fraternity No. 262. No. 262 (which like Golden Rule No. 159 survives to this day) joined the move to 215–217 South Main. Two emblems of Freemasony, a skull and crossbones and Templar cross, still ornament two of the building’s windows.

In 1885, the Masons leased the third floor of the recently constructed St. James Building, which occupied the site where Allen’s Tavern once stood. As the fraternity continued to grow, five more Masonic organizations eventually joined them to form what became known as the “Masonic Block.”

Membership peaked in the 1920s, when Golden Rule alone had more than 1,000 members and Fraternity No. 262 more than 700. In 1925, the new, exclusive Masonic Temple was dedicated at 327 South Fourth Avenue. Designed by U-M architecture professor Albert Rousseau, the art deco monument symbolized the culmination of Masonry’s first century in the city.

Yet despite the huge turnout for the dedication ceremony, trouble was already in the air. By year’s end, the Temple Association still had not paid off its contractors. Though this short-term problem was resolved, the temple’s financial problems persisted and worsened during the Depression. By 1940, the Temple Association was effectively broke and unable to pay its property taxes.

A new Temple Association was quickly organized and managed to repurchase the building at its foreclosure sale in 1944. Five years later, the Masons again owned their temple free and clear.

Following World War II and the Korean War, American Masons received a much needed boost in membership. Between 1948 and 1959, two new Masonic organizations and several new Masonic clubs appeared in Ann Arbor. Yet from 1956 to 1964, the Temple Association remained financially strained and was forced to rent out significant portions of its building to make ends meet. By 1972, the Temple Association was again facing the prospect of foreclosure.

The Masons hoped to sell their temple for $300,000 and rent back the fourth floor as their meeting space. But a new federal building was being planned next door on Liberty Street, and the government wanted the temple site for parking. When the two sides were unable to reach agreement on a price, the U.S. General Services Administration simply seized the Masons’ temple and demolished it in 1975. After a protracted legal battle, the Temple Association was awarded only $120,000 for the property; worse for the city of Ann Arbor, an architectural gem was traded for a patch of black asphalt.

The Masons bought a four-acre site on West Liberty Road in Scio Township and erected a new, much smaller temple. In 1978, when the building was dedicated, eight Masonic groups shared it. Today, only five of these clubs remain, and together they have fewer members than a single lodge had in the 1920s.

The Liberty Road property is listed at an asking price of $1,275,000. The groups that shared it have gone their separate ways: three “York Rite” groups moved to Ypsilanti’s Masonic Temple, while the Bonisteel Masonic Library relocated to Detroit. Fraternity No. 262 is meeting at Hathaway’s Hideaway, a private hall on South Ashley Street. For the time being, Golden Rule No. 159, the principle stakeholder in the building, will remain at the site. The Temple Association is seeking new groups or businesses to use the site, actively marketing the facility’s commercial kitchen and meeting hall for lease.

The decision to sell the temple hasn’t hurt two groups that meet independently. The Zal Gaz Grotto, a Masonic social and service club, has its own hall on West Stadium Boulevard, while St. Mary’s Lodge No. 4 of the Prince Hall Masons meets at Bethel A.M.E. Church.

The Prince Hall Masons are named for an African-American who was initiated into Masonry in 1775 by an Irish military lodge stationed in Boston. Though the local Prince Hall lodge dates to 1867, just two years after the founding of Golden Rule No. 159, the black and white lodges had no formal contact for 130 years. The two state organizations belatedly recognized one another in 1997.

Despite their setbacks, some Masons remain optimistic about the fraternity’s future. Seymour Greenstone, secretary for Fraternity No. 262, has been a member since 1957. The group, he notes, “has seen a significant increase in new members in the last five years, mostly young men in their twenties and thirties. These young members are seriously interested in the philosophy and ethical foundations of Masonry and come to the fraternity well read and with great enthusiasm.”

Even if Ann Arbor’s Masons never build another temple, the fraternity is about more than bricks and mortar, or secret oaths and handshakes. It’s about enduring personal connections—sometimes initiated by family, but ultimately strengthened by the special friendships made in a lodge. Tom Hathaway, a thirty-three-year-old medical student, says he was introduced to Freemasonry at his grandfather’s funeral. He found the Masonic ceremony more moving than the Episcopal liturgy and subsequently joined Fraternity No. 262. Busy today with studies, his family, and his church, he finds time for the group, he says, because “the people I meet in Masonry inspire me to be a better person.”