Never a Dull Moment

During the winter of 2017-2018 we received quite a bit of snow and by the early spring there was a pile of it in the Commemorative Garden, the area between the Museum Building, the Moore Block and the “L” Building.  One afternoon, probably in late April, as the snow pile was rapidly melting, I saw a piece of debris starting to poke out and I thought briefly in passing “that looks like someone is missing a roof hatch.”  I passed by there the next afternoon and as more of it was visible, I realized it was indeed a roof hatch, and it looked a lot like the one on the Ferris Grand probably did.  I hurried up around the corner and into the Ferris Grand, all the way up to the attic level to check, and sure enough there was a great patch of daylight streaming into the attic where the roof hatch was supposed to be.  I quickly notified the Board of Directors and several of them showed up immediately to see about putting it back in its place.

Its not as easy at it might seem, to replace a flown off roof hatch.  For one thing, you cannot replace it from the inside because of course it won’t fit through the hole it is supposed to be covering.  And there is no direct exterior roof access.  So great minds quickly came up with a plan and executed it to save the day.  The Ferris Grand roof hatch is now back in its place and securely bolted down so flying off in a strong wind is no longer an option.  (Which might have been the case with the robust winds we have had since then.)  Hard telling what this winter will bring, but that hatch isn’t going anywhere!

The Murals

Two stories in height, the Masonic Lodge Room is the most important space above the main level.  The Lodge Room has a rectangular shape; the East and West walls (sidewalls) are longer than the North and South walls.  The most important features within the room are the 12 horizontal figurative murals as well as hand painted decoration on the walls.  The space also offers excellent woodwork, including coffered beams, crown molding, chair rails, doors, etc.  All of the wood trim is of stained oak. 

In 1917 Austrian immigrant artist Leo Henke painted the beautiful murals and the painted decoration in the Lodge Room.  Mr. Henke was not a Mason.  He received the inspiration for the murals from a 1903 edition of the Illustrated History of Freemasonry.  The painting was executed with a technique named “al secco” which means painting on a dry support, in this case plaster.  This is different from painting on a wet support called “al fresco.”

So, the murals were painted directly on the walls, and according to its appearance, the painting medium was oil or oil-modified casein bound paint.  At some later date an uneven layer of linseed oil varnish was applied with large brushes over the entire surface of the walls.  The runs of varnish and the unevenness of the varnish layer can be seen in many areas.  Also- this type of varnish has two important disadvantages:  1) It darkens and changes the color over time (turns brown-yellow); and 2) It is very difficult to remove.  And, of course, over the top of the hand painted decoration and the varnish is a top layer of 100 years of dust and smoke.

Under the original oak crown molding a 6” wide oak board was added.  This extra piece of trim covers a 3” inches of the upper part of the murals which alters the aesthetical appearance of them.  Presently the murals are smaller, and their proportion has changed.

The subject of these 12 murals revolve around the construction of the Temple of Solomon and the death of King Hiram of Tyre, who sent building materials and men for the original construction for the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.  The tradition is that King Hiram had been Grand Master of all Masons; he prayed daily for guidance from his God before drawing the designs that would set the craftsmen to work.

Starting with the back wall (South) and going clockwise the figurative murals are as follows (and can be seen on our website):

  • The Tomb of Cyrus
  • The Building of King Solomon’s Temple
  • The Tomb of Hiram, King of Tyre
  • The Mount of Olives
  • Sea of Genesareth
  • Highest Hill or Lowest Valley
  • The Cedars of Lebanon
  • The Clay Grounds
  • The Stone Quarry
  • The Burning Bush
  • Armageddon
  • The Port of Joppa
The Masonic Lodge Room on the second floor of the Ferris Grand Block. 
Photo Credit:  Mark Thode, 2017.

Plaster Finishes

The original interior surface of the opera house was gypsum plaster decorated with distemper.  Whiles the opera house surfaces have been obliterated or covered over in most locations, the original plaster is still evident in the third floor, former balcony area.  The salmon colored plaster visible below layers of flaking paint at the north wall is original, and in the third floor restroom, behind the later plaster skim coat that is falling from the walls, a portion of a painted frieze can be seen at the top of the wall.  The frieze is a delicate yellow stenciled onto the salmon background, with floral and geometrical motifs.

Distemper frieze on original opera house plaster wall, 3rd floor.

At the time the opera hall was built, gypsum plaster was just coming into widespread use in the plastering trade.  Interior plastering in the United States until the turn of the nineteenth century was generally carried out with lime plaster.  Gypsum plaster sets quickly and allows for the application of additional plaster coats and finishing with paint within a short time frame.  Gypsum plaster does not, however, have the same durability and water resistance as a true lime plaster.  The contemporary accounts of the Ferris Grand finishing work mention that the “adamant” was employed; adamant was a trade name at the time for the new gypsum plaster.

In 1914 the state fire marshal ordered the Ferris Grand Opera House closed for reason of a number of safety concerns, including the need to replaster the ceiling.  Plaster serves to protect the wood structure behind the finish from fire, it is an incombustible material, and so it would have been an important part of fire safety in a large auditorium building like the Ferris Grand.  It is remarkable that the plaster ceiling, only 15 years old at the time, would have been in need of replacement.  The poor condition of the ceiling must have been due to improper installation at the time of construction possibly resulting from rushed work, frost damage, or maybe from the plasterers’ unfamiliarity with a new type of material.

Clues in the Flooring

There are no extant architectural drawings of the Ferris Grand Block, or its opera house design.  Its original layout is a mystery.  Presumably, the auditorium took up the entire width, of the building, given the clear span roof framing, whereas the existing Lodge room does not.  According to contemporary descriptions, the former layout included four separate office spaces at the front of the building overlooking the street that were occupied initially by Drs. Alex & Will Brown.  The existing stairway from street level provided access to the auditorium, but did it also serve the front offices?  A curious change in floor level suggests maybe not.

At the storage area below the third-floor stairway, accessed from the Masonic anterooms, the original flooring is visible, and it is four inches below the current floor level of the rest of the second floor.  It does not align with the floor level reached by the main stair from street level.  It is possible instead that the front offices were served by the stairwell between the Ferris Grand building and the Mackay building, which now only serves the Mackay building.  The existing stair to the third floor probably did not exist, but rather the balcony level was served by multiple stairways within the auditorium space itself. 

During the 1917 remodeling, the Masons built new partitions on top of existing maple finished flooring, as evidenced at the store room adjacent to the kitchen, which implies the second floor at the level of the original main floor of the opera house.  However, original newspaper accounts describe a “raised floor” for the fixed seats of the auditorium, which implies a sloping floor, which may or may not have extended throughout the space.

The opera hall balcony was probably originally a sloping balcony, and the existing third floor was probably entirely new built in 1917.  Typical of frugal remodelers of every period, the Masons reused materials from the opera house, at least in locations in the building where it would not detract from the grand design of the new Lodge.  In the third floor “locker room,” the flooring is salvaged flooring from the old balcony: there are row numbers on the fir boards in scattered locations. 

Opera House seating numbers on the reused flooring on third floor.

Another Stone Block

In 1898, A.D. Ferris, Frasier Mackay and a Mr. Hanson, entered into a partnership to build a new stone block on Pipestone’s East Olive Street (now Main Street).  They owned adjacent frame buildings and planned to have them moved to other parts of town before the construction of a two-story stone building which would reach across their three lots.  The project got under way when the buildings were moved and the lots cleared in August of that year.

After the first floor was built, Mr. Mackay left the project and finished his part of the building on his own.  Mr. Ferris bought Mr. Hanson out and expanded his vision for the other two-thirds of the building.  Mr. Ferris’ new vision included a grand opera house on the second floor with a partial third floor balcony.  There was to be a stage across the south end and a horseshoe balcony on the north.  In order to fund his civic project, Ferris asked the community to subscribe seats at $5 each.  Ferris also took a silent partner at this time, his daughter Mittie Manuel, and fifteen community members put up $100 each in order to seal the public’s interest and support.

The second floor was laid in November and staging and joists raised for the partial third story.  As the work season was winding down in other cities, stone masons and workmen arrived in Pipestone to push the Ferris Grand Block to the finish.  The stonework was completed by November 17 and Ferris and his investors held a short dedication ceremony in the unfinished building later that month.

The carpentry crew came in in December to work on the interior woodwork.  The heating plant was installed and operational by mid-December and plastering of the walls has begun.  The local newspaper proclaimed the playhouse finished, the text of the article amending that to “practically finished,” on February 17, 1899.

As the finishing touches were being put on the Opera Hall on the second floor, the rental portions of the building were filling up.  One of the two separate retail storefronts on the street level was occupied by the Savings Bank Department Store and Doctors A.H. and W.A. Brown moved into their new office quarters in the second floor, renting the entire suite of four rooms.

Opening day for the Opera Hall, which had been initially planned for January 1, 1899, finally took place on March 8,1899 to a packed house.  A traveling theatrical group was hired and several local youths participated as stage hands.  The community pegged opening night a great success, (although it was allowed the show itself wasn’t that great!)

Read more on the Construction & Opening of the Ferris Grand Block in the booklet “Another Stone Block” available on our online gift shop.  Visit our website at and click on “Gift Shop,” and search under books!