The American History You Didn’t Know Was in the Heart of Franklin
Nearly every structure has a story to tell in downtown Franklin, and few are more fascinating than the ones belonging to the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall. The three-story Gothic Revival-style building was the tallest in Tennessee when constructed back in 1826. It’s been the headquarters of Hiram Lodge ever since, making it the oldest continually operating Masonic Lodge building in the country – but far more than Masonic meetings have happened inside its nearly 200-year-old brick walls.
In 1827, Tennessee’s first Episcopal Church was conceived at the Masonic Hall by James H. Otey, who later became the first Episcopal bishop in Tennessee. Later that year, Alexander Campbell preached at the Hall, marking the official beginning of the Church of Christ – His congregation continued to meet at the Masonic Hall until its own church was completed in 1852. In fact, nearly every new church congregation from that era first met at the Masonic Hall until members could build their own churches. Because of its size and location in the heart of Franklin, funerals, dances, and public markets were held in the building as well.
President Andrew Jackson used the Masonic Hall in 1830 for talks with the Chickasaw delegation to negotiate the purchase of their land, marking the first time a president had ever participated in treaty talks. August 31, 1830, Chickasaw leaders signed the Treaty of Franklin inside the Hall, ceding their land east of the Mississippi River to the United States so long as they could find suitable land west of the Mississippi. The treaty set Jackson’s Indian Removal plan in motion, a difficult and demoralizing forced march of at least 60,000 American Indians from their homes in the east to what’s now Oklahoma.
During the Civil War, the Masonic Hall was a hotbed of activity. At the same time, local women gathered in one of the Hall’s large rooms to sew Confederate uniforms for friends and family members. Later, during Franklin’s Union occupation, the Hall was used as an office and barracks for Union troops. After the bloody Battle of Franklin in 1864, the Masonic Hall, like most other downtown buildings, served as a temporary field hospital for wounded Union soldiers.
Since the Masonic Hall is one of the few buildings in Franklin still serving its original purpose as a meeting place to Hiram Lodge, a surprising number of its architectural details remain unchanged from the time it was constructed. Outside the building, take a close look at the exterior bricks, which were handmade by enslaved people – You’ll find that some of them contain the fingerprints of their makers.
Inside, historians have been able to identify four historic wallpapers beneath layers of paint, as well as graffiti and even bayonet holes on the walls from Civil War-era soldiers. Two sets of doors on the second and third floors still have their original faux finishes painted in 1826 – one of mahogany, the other of marble. Faux finishes were popular at that time. The work done in the Masonic Hall indicates that the painters were highly skilled and probably trained in Europe or on the East Coast, unusual for laborers in a town that was still in its infancy.
Today, the Masonic Hall is still used by Hiram Lodge for its weekly meetings. Preservationists hope to open a museum in the Hall one day, but those plans haven’t materialized so far. In the meantime, the building keeps nearly two centuries of secrets all to itself in the heart of downtown Franklin. While the building is currently closed to the public, downtown visitors can view the exterior of the Masonic Hall on 2nd Avenue South just off of Main Street.
Photo Credit: Rachael Finch, former Executive Director of the Historic Franklin Masonic Hall Foundation