This is a story, one of those frustrating stories, which has a beginning, middle, but as yet no ending. However, I make no apologies for telling this story in its unfinished state for I believe this is now the time to tell it. The story concerns the attempt being made to save a Masonic Hall from closure and to preserve it so that it may be enjoyed by future generations of Freemasons. This however, is no ordinary Masonic Hall, for this is the oldest purpose-built Masonic Hall in the world, - and here is the story.

Lying largely unknown and unnoticed deep in the oldest part of Sunderland on the north-east coast of England in the corner of an unkempt car park is a building which, from first impressions, looks somewhat derelict. Yet, whilst this stark exterior reveals no clues to its identity and to the magnificent interior which it encompasses, this building plays a vital link in the annals of Freemasonry in that it is the oldest purpose-built Masonic Hall in the world.

Built in 1785 by the Lodge which, incredibly, still uses it today, i.e. Phoenix Lodge No.94 in the Roll of the United Grand Lodge of England. There are, of course, older buildings being used for Masonic purposes but these were built for some other usage and later converted for a Masonic role.

The nondescript exterior has resulted in many visitors to the building driving passed it, not realising that it was what they were looking for. It is also probably the reason why it has remained relatively untouched by the vandals which, unfortunately, are part of modern day inner-city life. The exterior conceals one further surprise for the Hall is a Grade I listed building, putting it on a par with the magnificent cathedrals and stately homes of the land. The listing, made in 1975, is unusual for it specifically includes the interior fixtures and fittings of the building. It is worth noting that only 4% of listed buildings in the country are Grade I.

Let us, however, go back to the beginning. Phoenix Lodge was constituted on 25th November 1755 by James Smithson, the second Provincial Grand Master for Durham. Bro. Smithson was one of the major landowners in the area who's son became the 1st Duke of Northumberland and who's grandson founded the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. The formation of Phoenix Lodge marked the beginning of regular Freemasonry in Sunderland although from newspaper cuttings it is known that Masonic meetings had been held in Sunderland as long ago as 1734.

At first, the Lodge met in hotels and taverns but in 1778 the Master, Capt. George Thompson (Chief Surveyor of Customs in Sunderland and later to become the third Provincial Grand Master for Durham) was able to purchase the remaining piece of land he required in Vine Street to build a Hall for his Lodge. He apparently spared no expense in building and fitting out the Hall which was dedicated on 16th July 1778. The Hall which Bro. Thompson leased to the Lodge, unfortunately caught fire after a meeting on 19th November 1783 and was destroyed.

The Brethren immediately set up a Committee under the leadership of the Master, Dr. Tipping Brown to find a suitable piece of land on which to erect a new hall. The land purchased was the bowling green of the Golden Lion Hotel (deeds are in possession of the Trust) The Lodge was fortunate in having John Bonner, an architect, amongst its members and he was given a brief to design a replica of the old hall in Vine Street. The Committee moved quickly for within nine months of the old hall being destroyed, the foundation stone of the new Hall was laid. Building work was completed within a further seven months and the Hall was dedicated on 5th April 1785.

Let us pause a while to consider the times in which the new Hall was built. On the global scene, 1785 was only 15 years after Capt. Cook discovered Australia, 2 years after the ending of the American War of Independence and 4 years before the fall of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution. In England, George III was almost half way through his 60 year reign as monarch and William Pitt had been Prime Minister for 2 years. It makes one appreciate how old the Hall is.

Over the last few years Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, Sunderland City Council and private developers have got together to redevelop this area of the city as part of a major conservation scheme. Within the next 5 years or so the area should be transformed with the Hall playing its part in the transformation.

The prominent feature of the Hall was, and still is, the Lodge Room approximately 40ft x 25 ft x 20 ft high which has a seating capacity of approximately 90. When you consider that the average attendance at meetings was only around 15 when the hall was built, the Lodge was very forward thinking in building such a large Lodge Room. Adjoining the east and west sides of the Lodge Room were two pents some 12ft wide one of which formed the entrance and robing room and the other being used to house the caretaker. Access to the Lodge Room and the pents was by doors either side of the Worshipful Master's and Senior Warden's chairs.

The interior of the Lodge Room has, apart from the occasional coat of paint and re-upholstery of the seating, remained untouched since 1785. In the centre of the ceiling is a large blazing star with its original gold leaf with the letter "G" and seven stars in a triangle in the centre. On the north wall are two fireplaces in the style of Robert Adams who was still working when the Hall was built. It is not known however if the fireplaces were the actual work of Adams or that of an apprentice. These fireplaces were the only form of heating in the Hall and were used up to around the 1920's. Above the fireplaces are three Tracing Cloths of unusual pre-Union design dating from either 1811 or 1815. Over the Senior and Junior Warden's chairs are a large crescent moon and meridian sun respectively whilst over the Master's chair is a rising sun complete with a magnificent sunburst set into the plaster work. The moon and suns were carved and gilded by a Bro. Pears of Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the sum of 30.00. The quality of Bro. Pears' work is such that the gilding remains as it was 215 years ago.

The organ which sits in the alcove above the Senior Warden's chair was built for the opening of the Hall by a Mr. Donaldson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne at a cost of 50 guineas. Alas, the keyboard and workings of the organ have disappeared so that only the pipes and outer casing remain. If there is a draught blows through the building the pipes have been known to emit sounds! The alcove did at one time extend over the west pent in order for the organist to climb the ladder and sit at the organ. It is hoped in the future to restore the organ to its former glory.

With the exception of the bench seats around the room all the furniture was purchased in 1784 whilst the Hall was being built from St. John's Lodge at Newcastle-upon-Tyne which had recently closed down and was selling of its assets to pay off its debts. St. John's Lodge was certainly in existence in 1729 therefore it is feasible that the furniture was over 50 years old when the Phoenix Lodge bought it. The magnificent chair of the Master is adorned with the emblems of Christian Masonry and surmounted by a gilded carving of the Coat of Arms of the Newcastle Company of Masons. The Warden's chairs match that of the Master. The chairs of the Treasurer and Secretary are older still and are in the style of Chippendale. A respected antique furniture restorer who recently inspected the chairs thought that they were original but further research is required to prove this. These chairs have now been restored.

For over 100 years the Hall had no separate dining area, all meals being brought in from one of the local hotels in the area and consumed in the Lodge Room. In 1890, the house on the north side of the Hall was purchased. It is now known that this house had been converted from the former stables and hay loft of the Golden Lion Hotel and dates back to 1734 (deeds of property in possession of the Trust). In 1920, two houses adjoining the west side of the Hall were purchased and demolishes to make way to provide a new entrance hall and toilet facilities with a caretaker's flat above. At the same time, the west pent, which had been the entrance since 1785 was also demolished.

Over the years, Phoenix has been joined by five other craft lodges and four side degrees, all of which play an important part in the running of the Hall. Phoenix Lodge had always been the owner of the Hall but in order to involve the other users in its running, the Lodge decide in 1980 to lease for a period of 199 years the management and maintenance of the building to the Queen Street Masonic Temple Ltd., a company specially formed for that purpose and having on its Board representatives for the other Lodges and side degrees. The Board have done sterling work during their 20 year existence especially as for most of that period they have been faced with a declining membership whilst having to absorb rising costs. Unfortunately, the Board were never fully informed of the legal responsibilities required of them in being the managers of a listed building and this has been the root cause of the present difficulties which the building now faces.

Financial constraints on the Board meant that apart from essential maintenance, the fabric of the building was allowed to deteriorate somewhat although some superficial repairs were carried out. None of this work, however, had the consent of English Heritage nor was it to their exacting specifications. This led in 1995 to the City Council, as Agents for the Department of the Environment in respect of historic buildings, giving the Board verbal notice under threat of a Repair Order under the Listed Buildings Act, that the building had to be put back to the condition that beheld its listed building status.

The choice of the Board was simple; either abide by the request of the City Council and put the building right or sit back and await the Repair Order and the probable closure of the building that would go with it. In reality, the only choice open to the Board was the former which they took without hesitation.

It was made clear to the Board that the enormity of the task ahead meant that it had to be carried out professionally to stand any chance of success. The soundness of the structural element of the building was an unknown factor to us therefore, Structural Engineers, W.A. Fairhurst & Partners were appointed to report on its condition. Their report in May 1996 was most gratifying for it concluded the being some 211 years old at the time, the Lodge room was in remarkably good condition. The walls, which were 3 feet thick at their base, sat directly on the clay sub-strata and showed no sign of movement [Link to Cellar]. The timber boarded floor is supported on timber joists spanning between the walls and a central 10" x 10" timber beam supported on brick piers. Apart from the ends of a few joists rotting away at their supporting points on the walls, the floor structure was sound. The roof is supported by three substantial king-post trusses and all the roof timbers are a massive 14" x 5" in cross-section. The roof timbers showed no sign of fire damage thus dispelling a widely held theory that they had been brought from the original Hall. All roof and floor timbers are original and may even be old ships timbers obtained second hand for the building of the Lodge room. There is a theory that there was a tax on new timber in those days. The pre 1785 walls of the dining room are also sound although the roof structure is not original. It is feasible, therefore, that the room was re-roofed in 1890 when it was converted into the dining room . The only dubious part of the whole building from a structural aspect is the 1921 extension which requires extensive repairs.

A recent archaeological survey of the cellar has found pre 1785 drainage around the perimeter of the cellar, as well as various shards of 12th 14th century pottery and medieval shoe. [Link to Cellar] These are on exhibit in the dining hall.

Having ascertained that the building was sound, Anthony Watson Architects were appointed to prepare a scheme for putting the building back to its listed building condition and to obtain the required planning permission, listed building consent and English Heritage approval. Watson's were chosen because of their previous and ongoing work on historic buildings. Having obtained the necessary approvals, the cost of the work was estimated at 65, 000 (now 85,000) inclusive of fees etc. At first, the cost seemed disproportionate to the work to be carried out but the input from English Heritage was such as to include the material specification and the profile of the mortar joints, all of which increase the cost of the work.

It was always obvious that a large sum of money would have to be found somewhere, the question being, of course, from where? The board itself had been working from hand to mouth for many years in a laudable attempt to keep costs to the Brethren down to an absolute minimum. It was also appreciated that a Masonic Hall on its own would not qualify for the level of external funding required to carry out the work. Applications for external funding would only be feasible if the building could be open to the public. Hence was born the concept of a Masonic Heritage Centre.

Investigations were meanwhile continuing to unravel the complex legal situation which when completed concluded that whilst the management and maintenance of the Hall was leased to the Board, Phoenix Lodge as owners of the building were legally responsible for all the debts incurred on the building. This meant that if the City Council went ahead with their threat to serve a Repair Order and therefore carried out the repair work themselves, Phoenix Lodge, i.e. the MEMBERS of Phoenix Lodge, would be personally liable for the cost of the work which was estimated at 65,000 at the time. This was totally unacceptable to the members of the Lodge who decided to relinquish their ownership of the Hall after 212 years and put it in the hands of the Queen Street Masonic Heritage Centre Ltd, a company specially formed for that purpose. The Queen Street Masonic Temple Ltd was not affected by this, save that their lease is now held by the new company and not Phoenix Lodge.

The Heritage Centre Company was incorporated on 9th September 1997 with five Directors, each bringing to the Company their own particular expertise yet retaining the confidence of the members of the Phoenix Lodge that the Hall would continue to be run the way that they would wish it. Amongst the stated objectives of the Company is the promotion and encouragement of the principles of Freemasonry and the promotion of public awareness in the importance of Freemasonry in society in general and in Sunderland in particular, both historically and to the present day.

The centre-piece of the Heritage Centre, will, of course, be the Lodge Room and will still be used for Masonic purposes. The dining room will house the exhibits which will be moved aside when the room is required after a Masonic meeting. The building will be open to the public and a guide will be on hand to give a guided tour and to answer questions. Refreshments and souvenirs will also be available. In the long term, it is hoped to extend the building to house a permanent exhibition and to provide additional function suites for public use.

The Company recently applied for Charity Commissioners to become a Registered Charity which was granted in June 1999 and will greatly increase the fund raising capability of the Company. Also Lucinda Lambton, the historian and broadcaster, has agreed to become Patron of the Trust which will be a great boost to the Heritage Centre. Lady Lambton visited the Hall in the summer of 1996 during her researches for a BBC2 documentary on the heritage of County Durham and immediately fell in love with it. Her great, great, great, great grandfather, William Henry Lambton, became Provincial Grand Master for Durham three years after the Hall was open and his son, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, became Provincial Grand Master in 1818. It is known that both visited the Hall its early days and sat in the Master's Chair, the same chair that Lady Lambton sat in during her visit.

As funding was always going to be a problem, it became our number one priority. Our primary concern is the preservation of the Hall so that it may be enjoyed by Freemasons for many years to come and the public throughout the world as well as fulfilling the objectives of the Company. The preservation work, estimated at 85, 000 is referred to as Phase 1 of the project. We were advised that funding would be available from English Heritage who always supported Grade I listed buildings. An application for funding was therefore made in the summer of 1996 but the advice we were given proved to be somewhat erroneous for the application was refused. English Heritage however, reconsidered the application following the personal intervention of the two Sunderland Members of Parliament and awarded a grant of 40%. The City of Sunderland Council awarded a grant of 25,000. A scheme has been set up where Brethren, Lodges and members of the public can become a Life Patron of the Heritage Centre for 100, a Vice Patron for 50 and a Member for 25. This has raised a considerable sum amounting to 20,000 and is still ongoing. There is also a Gift Aid Scheme which allows the Trust to recover tax from the Inland Revenue from the donations made under this scheme. The work on Phase I has now started.

There are several Phases to the Heritage Centre work which will be carried out as funds become available. Top priority will be given to the refurbishment of the toilet facilities and the addition of a ladies powder room and toilets which is needed if the Hall is to be hired out to the public. A disabled access will built within this next Phase. Estimated cost of this Phase is 25,000.

So ends the story, or as far as we can tell it at this moment in time. How the story will end we do not know. We hope that this important building is preserved and ultimately a Heritage Centre opened. To help us to achieve our aims, we are open to advice and suggestions on all aspects of the project, including the problem of fundraising. Should anyone be able to offer such assistance or support, or may wish to donate to the project please contact:-

Colin Meddes, 2 Brackenwood Grove, Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, ENGLAND. SR2 9ED. Tel: +44(0)191 522 0115 [or email].