SALT LAKE CITY—
I am walking around inside the Masonic Temple in downtown Salt Lake City and no, I did not sneak in.
I rang the doorbell and they let me in. No secret handshake, no password required, other than "I'm here for the tour."
For a little over a year now, the ornate 85-year-old temple — located appropriately on South Temple Street — has been conducting guided public tours every Tuesday and Thursday at noon and 2 p.m. The tours are free and you can bring your camera and any question you can think of.
The tour guide is James Wilson, a 32-year-old University of Utah graduate in art history and a master Mason. It was Wilson's idea to start the tours, which he does voluntarily, making him a true free Mason.
"I love history and I love masonry and how else is somebody who majored in art history going to put it to use?" the unassuming Wilson shrugs as we start the tour.
It's just him and me. It's been raining off and on all morning and that's kept the crowd down. Besides, the Masons haven't exactly put up billboards advertising the tours. Mostly it's word of mouth. Sometimes nobody shows up.
But Wilson is excited because slowly but surely the general public is making its way to and through the temple, where he has a chance to spew facts and correct misperceptions.
"I get to dispel myths — like we don't worship Satan," he says. "We're a fraternity with a cool clubhouse."
The open door policy isn't new — James explains that the doors to the temple have always been open to non-Masons — but the outreach is new, reflecting a gregariousness that old-school Masons would not recognize and probably not be too crazy about.
There are three requirements to become a Mason: 1) You need to be a male over 18; 2) You need to believe in a Supreme Being; and 3) On your own you need to ask to be considered for membership. Masons do not recruit, period.
But after decades of declining membership, James explains that instead of being totally stoic about it, Masons are now starting to mention to non-Masons that while they can't ask them to join they would like them to know that if they're interested, it's OK if THEY ask.
It's bearing fruit. Utah has seen 165 new Masons initiated over the last year, out of a total Masonic population of about 2,000 in some 34 lodges across the state — representing the first net increase in Utah Masonry in more than 30 years.
James passes on such tidbits as he moves past the temple's entry gate and unlocks the doors to the temple's four lodge rooms and the 900-seat auditorium, where 97 different backdrops can be lowered onto the stage for different ceremonies. (That's where the costumes, handshakes and passwords come in, don't ask).
The lodge rooms — there's the Colonial room with a full-length portrait of George Washington in his Masonic apron, the Egyptian room, the Gothic room with an Olde English look and the Moorish room with an Islamic feel — all serve the same function and are interchangeable. Only decor and size differ. All are full of symbols of rock masons — the trade from which Free Masonry emerged at an undetermined time in the long ago past. There's the square, the level and the plumb. Each room is adorned by the letter "G," which stands interchangeably for Geometry, God or Great Creator of the Universe.
James explains that while it's mandatory that a Mason believe in a Supreme Being, it's also mandatory that no one is to be asked their particular religion.
He says the objectives of Masonry aren't any different than they were when George Washington joined.
"It's a fraternal organization where men come together and try and make themselves better," he says.
James joined 10 years ago, when he was 22. "I was drawn to the history, the pomp and circumstance, the medieval touches," he says. "But what kept me is the friendship."
The secrecy is overplayed, he insists. Yes, he's read Dan Brown's book about the Masons' powerful control of the world's fate, "The Lost Symbol," and while he says he enjoyed it — "because we're the good guys in the end, not the bad guys" — it's fiction; certainly not the Masonry he knows.
"You've been through the building," he says, "if we really controlled the FBI, the CIA and ran the government, why can't we keep the plaster on the wall?"
Good question. Good tour. Really good price.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.