French Medieval in Little Falls

There are sights I expect to see in upstate NY — Italianate manses, barns needing a new paint job, and breweries (so many!) — and those that I do not — like a towering wattle-and-daub-style French Medieval edifice, yet that’s exactly what a visitor to the small Mohawk Valley city of Little Falls  will find. No, it’s not a long-lost set piece from an early Hollwood production of Cyrano de Bergerac — it’s actually the city’s former Masonic hall.

First, a little background. Little Falls heyday began in the early 19th century when, buoyed by access to the New  York City market via the new Erie Canal, the city became a hub on the food network supplying the city with cheese. With the influx of cheap immigrant labor later in the century, leather and textile manufacture took over. Of course, any 19th century community wouldn’t be worth its weight in cheddar without at least a few fraternal orders. By the early 1900s, Little Falls had become an industrial and farming hub of the Mohawk Valley, with a population of more than 13,000. Of those, many of the most affluent in the community were also among the 350 members of Masonic Lodge No. 181 or the 173 member Order of the Eastern Star. And those members wanted a lodge to reflect their newfound prosperity. In support of this cause a Mrs. Sponable donated land on the side of a steep hill at the corner of Prospect and School streets in honor of her husband, Mr. Wells Sponable, a decorated Civil War major. According to a fabulous article by Terry Tippin and Louis Baum of the Little Falls Historical Society:

IMG_20180224_125739370_HDR“Funds were raised and an extensive search was conducted for an architect to wed a dream and a difficult site. A large number of designs were submitted by architects from one end of the state to the other. Chosen was Brother William Neil Smith, Masonic Grand Lodge Master Architect. During his speech at the cornerstone ceremony on Sept. 12, 1914, Architect Smith cited the French medieval period as his inspiration for the structure” which was “dominated by the Free Masons, making the construction of a building of this style a fitting monument to the construction, art and craft of the Masons. The contractor was Frank N. Goble, of New York City. Construction as completed, and the move was made to the new facilities on May 25, 1915.”

The building is constructed of brick and stone and framed with steel and timber, and the roof is of terra cotta tile flashed with copper. Perhaps most notably, the upper stories have a wattle-and-daub effect achieved through half-timber and cement stucco relief on the upper stories which is also also used in the more common Tudor Revival style.

The Lodge sold 5 Prospect Street in 1995 to Terry Tippin, who converted the first level into living space, the basement bowling alley into a pottery studio, and installed a bedroom in one of the turrets. Though under separate ownership, Blue Lodge No. 181 continued to meet in the building until 2004 when, due to declining membership, they merged with the Dolgeville Masons. It was back on the market in 2017 and sold that July.

(Ian Benjamin/February 2018)

If you are passing through Little Falls make sure to grab a bite at That Little Place on Main. Afterwards, take a quick walk to the Masonic Temple right around the corner — you can’t miss it.