Time was, happenings at the Temple of Freemasonry off the Capitol Square - from statewide gatherings of members to dramatic performances like 1928's hit play "Are You a Mason?" - made the front pages of the local newspapers. Today, the imposing limestone building at 301 Wisconsin Ave. is a national landmark, but people passing by may have little idea of what goes on behind its walls.
Freemasons, also known as Masons, are still a focus of curiosity in popular culture. They are cast as the keepers of the key to ultimate enlightenment in the current best-seller "The Lost Symbol," and to a literal treasure beyond measure in the 2004 hit film "National Treasure." Freemasonry also long has been the target of exposes linking the group to everything from Satanism to plots to launch a New World Order and assume global dominance. Even treatments that present the Masons as an organization devoted to traditional values package their story in enigma.
A bemused Bob Canfield shrugs it all off. "Anytime something is not fully understood, it's a conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are fun," says Canfield, 62, a retired administrator from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and a 33rd degree Mason, the organization's highest rank.
He is also secretary of the Valley of Madison Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, which hints at how labyrinthine the system of Masonry and its "appendant bodies" becomes. It may be arcana like that - along with the secret signals, symbolic regalia and closed rituals - that start imaginations spinning out of control about what might be happening at what is now known as the Madison Masonic Center.
The truth is much more ordinary. "We're the largest and oldest fraternity in the world," says Canfield, and like many fraternal organizations, Masons today are grappling with an aging and declining membership, focused on keeping their facilities going and their philanthropic ventures well funded. They also are trying to chart a course for the future in a society increasingly uninterested in joining brick-and-mortar social groups.
Freemasonry traces its roots to the stonemason guilds of the late 16th or early 17th century, at the close of the era of construction of the grand cathedrals in Europe. Tools of the trade - like the iconic square and compass - were adopted as symbols of the organization, which became less tied to actual building than the building of moral men.
Freemasonry was popular among the men who became the Founding Fathers of the United States - George Washington and Benjamin Franklin among them - and members will say its principles of free thinking and tolerance informed the founding of the Republic. Masons also were among the founders of the state of Wisconsin. The first master of the first Madison Masonic lodge in 1844 was John Catlin, who served as acting governor and later the presidentially appointed secretary of what was then the Wisconsin Territory. More recent prominent state Masons include former Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus and current Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who was the state's Masonic Grand Master in 2007.
The Masons are not a secret organization, but one that uses secrets to inspire members to its ideals. The Masons put their membership today at 5 million worldwide and 1.5 million in the United States, Canfield says. "Any organization this size that thinks it has secrets is kidding itself." Besides, many Masons - including Canfield - wear rings with the square and compass or other insignia marking them as members.
The square and compass, originally tools used to gauge the correctness of right angles and to inscribe arcs and circles, are symbols of right living to Freemasons. Masons "square" their actions in dealing with others, and "circumscribe" their conduct within the bounds of good moral character, says Canfield.
The square and compass often circumscribe a capital "G," that for Masons stands for the elemental presence of geometry or God. Masons must profess a belief in a Supreme Being, "the one true living God," which is defined as the traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Some Christian denominations frown upon the group - Catholic officials still say membership is "irreconcilable" with Catholicism - but Canfield says religion, as such, is never discussed at Masonic gatherings.
Symbolism, metaphor, allegory and ritual are at the heart of Masonry, which uses them to teach life lessons, Canfield says. Masons dress in symbolic regalia for the rituals, which are often held in the center's auditorium. An apron symbolic of those used by stonemasons is worn for routine gatherings and is the mark of membership conferred upon joining. Some men choose to be buried in them.
Most rituals are restricted to members, but a few, like installation of leaders, are open to the public. The shared secret rituals "are part of what binds us together," Canfield says, no different from the way ritual bonds members of any fraternity.
Canfield tells a story of trying to cash a check in another state years ago before the proliferation of debit cards. It was his ability to share a secret Masonic signal with a bank manager - and the trust of right conduct they shared as Masons - that got him cash in hand, he says.
The knowledge imparted by Masonry is less the grand enlightenment suggested in some fictional treatments of the group than the simple goal of becoming a better man, Canfield says.
Philanthropy is a major part of that, and it has been an area of expertise for Masons over the years. The Shriners Hospitals for Children in cities across the country is the best-known Masonic philanthropic venture. But Masonic Learning Centers like Madison's, one of 47 developed over the past decade, are a growing focus of charitable work.
Donna Magdalina of Madison says the tutoring her son received there free of charge a couple of years ago to better read with dyslexia made a dramatic difference in his life. "He reads voraciously now. Before, he hated to read. It was such a struggle," she says proudly.
Canfield says the Scottish Rite Masons, Northern Jurisdiction that runs the learning centers in the 15 states it encompasses donated $8.6 million in 2008 to varied charitable causes. He puts the Mason-connected giving worldwide at an astounding $1.5 million a day, including donations, pledges and investment earnings.
Probably the greatest challenge for the Madison Masons is to keep their grand facility operating and in good repair as membership plummets in an organization with a traditional reluctance to openly recruit members.
The half-dozen Masonic groups that call the center home still meet there, but attendance in the lofty Lodge Room often is sparse, Canfield admits. The Zor Shriners, also a Masonic group, outgrew the center and built a separate facility on the west side in the 1980s.
These days, the Masonic Center may host a wedding, like the 360-person banquet caterers were setting up for last week in the ballroom for hire; a craft sale extravaganza like the one staged on its lower level in November; or a music performance in the 950-seat auditorium, which has heard performers as diverse as Pete Seeger and the Moscow Boys Choir in the past decade.
The center, designed by noted architect brothers James R. and Edward J. Law and dedicated in 1925, is grand in scale. Features like the expansive lounge outside the ladies' room suggests a time when, like Canfield says, "everyone was a Mason" and the center was a hub of Madison social life. The auditorium, remarkably pleasant in its proportions, is evidence of a gifted hand for design. But other parts of the building are dark and even a little spooky. Patches of peeling paint show up here and there. It's expensive to keep the five-story facility going; utility bills hit $9,800 one month last winter for the Madison Masonic Center Foundation, the nonprofit organization that has owned it since 1987.
Rental of facility spaces - a ballroom, an auditorium and smaller rooms - to raise funds for the center's operation is becoming an increasingly urgent part of the Masons' mission. Canfield says members have talked about selling the facility and moving to something smaller, but there's a lot of opposition to abandoning the organization's home. The building's landmark status likely limits what could be done with it, but in any case, members cringe at the thought of it being razed to make way for something so commonplace as another condominium building. "It's a labor of love to keep this building going so it's available to the public," Canfield says.
That's growing more difficult as the number of Masons continues to decline. The Scottish Rite to which Canfield belongs has been losing members since 1976, he says, estimating that there are about 1,000 now in the Madison area. "We're losing about 50 members a year" as they die or just let their memberships lapse.
Adding to the difficulty of attracting members to traditional social clubs, Freemasons have a tradition of waiting for prospective members to ask about the organization - to seek the knowledge imparted by the group - rather than trying to sell it. Although his grandfather, father and uncles all were Masons, Canfield recalls, no one invited him to join until he broached the subject himself. Members have talked about putting together membership packets, with brochures and applications, to pass on to likely prospects. The opposition to changing traditional practices is strong.
Canfield believes Masonry still has a place in society. "It's definitely impacted my life and made me a better person," he says. Masonry's fraternal goals are as worthwhile as they ever have been. "What we offer is what people are looking for. We just have to figure out how to package it."