A conversational Q&A with Chris Boggess, the proprietor of The Oakland Scottish Rite Center.With its majestic columns and facade, The Oakland Scottish Rite Center is a building along Lake Merritt not to be missed. Right in line with the West Edge tradition of performing opera in strange and unique spaces throughout the east bay, we sat down with Chris to learn more about the building's history, and the mysterious allure that has surrounded the building for decades.
West Edge: Thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk Chris. So we are sitting in your office right now at The Oakland Scottish Rite Center, and you are the proprietor of this mysterious building – a building often spoken in the same breath as secret societies, commemorations, and likely… ghosts?
Chris Boggess: Well, I can either confirm or deny that we’re haunted by ghosts.
West Edge: Great, great, great. So: in 90 seconds, what's the history of this building?
CB: (Laughs) In 90 seconds? Oh boy. Ok: this is our third Masonic temple. The original one was at 12th and Washington and burnt down. The second one is behind us on Madison street, now the Islamic cultural center. We were built in 1925 because by that time we had outgrown the other temples.
West Edge: In 1925, how many people were members of the Masonic temple in Oakland?
CB: I’d say we had close to 9,000 active members in 1925. When we broke ground, it took two and a half years to complete all the work. Close to a thousand members of the fraternity did about 97% of the work here.
West Edge: The Free Masons built The Oakland Scottish Rite themselves, with their own hands?
CB: Yes, this building is built by us and we're still on original ownership. It’s been a huge, what's the word…undertaking. The construction made such an impact on the community that the Oakland Tribune did a 12 page special insert on it in 1925. 70 women sewed the tapestries in the building. Workmen came from all over - from Minnesota, back East, Midwest, Spain, Scotland, Argentina - all from different countries and places where Free Masons were. Some would come and they would work on the building and stay six months… Some stayed a year and then move here after seeing their temple built.
West Edge: What does the word temple mean to Free Masons? And maybe, for those that don’t know: what are Free Masons?
CB: Okay. So it's not - I hate to do it, I was told not to do it because it ruins a mystique - but we're not, we're not Dan Brown books or the Da Vinci Code or anything.
West Edge: No!
CB: I know, I was told specifically, don't say that during tours, that it ruins the mystique but we’re not new world order or anything like that. So, within Masonry - to become a Scott Rite Mason - you have to belong to what's called the Blue Lodge where you go through the first three degrees.
West Edge: Degrees?
CB: You begin by taking a vow that you're going to better yourself. We use the building of King Solomon's temple and events that happened around that time period within the Bible to illustrate to our brothers, other men, how to be better.
Once you’ve taken the vow to better yourself, you begin lessons. Lessons about things like truth, trust, fidelity, honor, temperance, fortitude of spirit, how to care for your brother as yourself, charity - not just, you know, ‘I give this much to charity’, but actually like charity of spirit - and overall, how to take these vows and bring them into your community, into your daily life.
These lessons, teachings, are within the first three degrees: Apprentice, Fellow Craftsman, and Master Mason.
West Edge: And once you have studied these 3 degrees, you are then a part of the brotherhood of Free Masons?
CB: That's right. Within the Free Masons, the Scottish Rite is considered the scholars. There are others: the York Rite, which is like the Knight's Templar, the Knights of Malta, The Scottish Rite does more scholarly studies, philosophy. We have a research library upstairs with philosophical and religious thought.
West Edge: Did the brotherhood of Free Masons begin with laboring stone masons?
CB: Yes actually – we trace back to the 1500s, to operative masons in Scotland and in England. Masons who were breaking the stone, working with the earth. A group of them found that society was lacking something at large. They felt an internal drive or impetus to better themselves, so they started looking at religion and churches and mystery schools. Philosophically inclined stone masons start talking and getting together and then they became Speculative Masons - more than just operative Masons. It progressed from there.
West Edge: How does the ‘operative’ stone mason’s craft apply to a philosophical ‘speculative’ stone mason’s thought?
CB: So we have what we call tracing boards - very big paintings. You can find them online too. They lay out what a Master Mason wants you to do for building a temple. The tracing board says: we're building a X number of columns with X number of stone -
West Edge: Like sacred geometry?
CB: Exactly- the 47th problem of Euclid, the golden ratio, all of that is incorporated into the building of the physical temple for the operative masons to build in accordance with the speculative masons.
It all traces back to King Solomon. The building of King Solomon's temple is a blueprint ‘Guidestone’ of the teachings within masonry. As one progresses through the degrees of masonry, you are inherently following the building of King Solomon’s temple.
So going back to those 3 degrees of Apprentice, Fellow Craftsman and Master Mason…As an ‘apprentice’ you are cutting stone, in a quarry, you are a beast of burden at that point, learning the trade.
And then as you become a Fellow Craftsman, you're actually working on the temple. You might be doing some of the stonework on the temple and learning some of the traditional sciences: astronomy, arithmetic, some geometry, geology, learning a Tuscan or a Doric column all the way up to a Composite Column and how to incorporate those within the building. Right? And then once you become a master Mason, you’re working within the holy of Holies, building the sculpture and really beautifying the temple within.
West Edge: Wait, is this philosophically or are you physically building an actual temple?
CB: Well for The Oakland Scottish Rite in 1925 it was building the actual physical temple. But you’re right that philosophically the temple you're working on throughout all of that is you, you took a vow to better yourself. So what you're working on is you. You are the temple that you are always working on.
West Edge: Why did the masons choose to put a theater on the 4th floor?
What does theater have to do with all of this?
CB: Masons learn in the theater. One person as an exemplar going through a lesson for the class but the participation is performed in a Tableau, in a play.
West Edge: Wow - with sets and costumes?
CB: Yes, we have hand painted drops. We have props, we have costumes. When I joined the fraternity here as a Scott Mason I started helping in costumes. I have a drama background from school really.
West Edge: Whoa!
CB: Yea, I was helping a costume designer named Ed Page and he had costumed wardrobe for like 50 years and 35 of those years were here. He never really clarified where the other 15 years were at.
West Edge: (laughing) A mystery.
CB: (laughing) Yeah. It was mystery.
West Edge: You know, in theater, grounded in ancient Greek theatrical tradition, the play was a lesson. With costume, with props. The lesson was conveyed through the protagonist who underwent an of transformation, and the audience witness him underwent a catharsis – a collective release toward a collective transformation.
CB: Yes. That's an excellent way describing the Tableaus. The costume, the prop, the backdrop is sort of a way in which the pageant can kind of act out a kind of philosophical learning. We have 97 hand painted drops in the theater, all by a man named Thomas G. Moses. He started in back east and worked his way west painting backdrops for Masonic temples and buildings. He basically laid out lengths of canvas along the floor and he painted scenes. Scene sets from Darius's palace in Persia, or a cave looking out at the sea, or ruins in Jerusalem, or buried in catacombs, a palace chapel, a cliff side with some trees nearby as the heavens are coming down -
West Edge: So operatic!
CB: Yea we rent them if people want to use them.
Scenery by Thomas G. Moses for the Little Rock Scottish Rite, 1923
West Edge: Ok, a couple final questions to wrap up here: What are some of the most remarkable events that OSRC has hosted?
CB: I mean, we do a lot for birthday parties, weddings. The Obamas have been here, twice. We've had the Clinton foundation. We've had Kaiser, Twitter, Facebook, galas, fundraisers…Bobby Kennedy, before he was assassinated, gave a talk upstairs when he was running for president and he came down to the lobby and he was supposed to leave and talk to The Black Panther party. And people warned him: ‘it's getting really crazy, don't go out, don't go out.’ But he felt that they needed to know that someone within power, within the government was willing to listen and work with them. So he went from here to meet with him that night, it was a Thursday. And then like he was assassinated like that weekend.
West Edge: Is there any secret about the venue that could be shared with our audience?
Or just spill the tea: is it haunted?
CB: I can neither confirm nor deny. There may be echoes of people..
West Edge: Have you ever heard of the ghost light in theater? When you turn the lights off in a theater at night, that you keep one single light on for the ghosts? The echoes of people?
CB: Somebody broke mine!
West Edge: Somebody? Or…
CB: No, the thing came off the bottom. I think it was a human person. Now I have to rewire it. I’m used to the echos now, but other staff members get pretty spooked. I tend to carry four flashlights.
West Edge: How many rooms are in this building?
CB: 13. Maybe 14.
West Edge: That’s fitting. Is the theater the 13th room?
CB: (laughing) I can neither confirm nor deny.