An Australian businessman who moved to Spokane five years ago has paid $1.1 million to take over ownership of the stately Masonic Center, one of the city’s largest and oldest meeting places.
The buyer is Greg Newell, 50, who’s president of equipment manufacturing firm Power Handling Inc. This week Newell and some family partners bought the 108-year old Masonic Center at 1108 W. Riverside Ave. The 110,000-square-foot building has been for sale since October 2012.
Newell said he envisions using the neoclassical white-stone building as a meeting center and event venue. He also hopes to hire people to manage events or run restaurants inside the building. The grand plan, he added, is to make the revamped Masonic building a centerpiece for an “old town” tourist and visitor area in downtown Spokane.
Newell’s investor group becomes just the second owner in the building’s history. Since completion of construction in 1905, the Masonic Center – originally the Masonic Temple – has been occupied by the Masonic order and several affiliated fraternal groups, including the Scottish Rite and the York Rite.
In recent years the nonprofit Masonic Temple Association of Spokane rented its various ballrooms and meeting places to area groups and schools for events, proms and other celebrations. The association has depended on donations from the Masonic Foundation of Spokane to cover the building’s costs.
“But we’ve outlived the building,” said Carlton Oaks, the association’s CEO, meaning Spokane’s Masonic groups have a fraction of the membership they enjoyed during the first half of the 20th century. After the temple was built, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt visited it twice.
Newell is leasing office space to the Masonic groups for 12 months, Oaks said.
Newell said he realizes the building’s age and structural issues may require another investment of $1 million to make it usable and attractive as a social center. The cost of improvements reflects why the Masonic Association sold the building for less than its original asking price of $1.75 million.
“I don’t look to dramatically change the building,” Newell said. “I’d call the building grand and bland. It just needs a bit more complexity.”
Newell said people living in Australia seldom see buildings more than 100 years old. “That (historic nature) is what drew me to it originally,” he said, adding, “I think it can be more than it now is.”
The building is on the Spokane historic register; it’s also in the Riverside Avenue Historic District, which is part of the National Register of Historic Places. Because of that status, Newell receives incentives for structural improvements. He cannot make changes to the 200-foot-wide exterior, graced by 18 columns.
But he can make changes to the interior. Changes to some larger ballrooms or meeting spaces, however, must be reviewed by the city and county’s historic preservation office.
Lacking a background in event management or food service, Newell said he’ll look to other companies to manage those operations.
He’s met with city officials to discuss improvements to the sidewalk and streetscape along West Riverside. Wider sidewalks, new street lamps and other improvements could boost the pedestrian appeal of the West Riverside historic area, Newell said.
“That area has some amazing buildings, it’s got the islands of grass and trees,” he said. “And it has a promenade feeling with a lot of potential for attracting people to that area.” The building next door, the historic Civic Building, at 1020 W. Riverside Ave., was sold this year to the Empire Health Foundation.
The purchase only includes the actual Masonic building. Newell is working on a plan to purchase the parking area along West Main Avenue on the back side of the building, he said.
Representing the buyer and seller in the deal was Jeff McGougan, a broker with Spokane’s NAI Black.
Newell’s company, which makes equipment that allows for easy movement of very heavy loads, was originally based in California. He moved it to Spokane five years ago. He’s also building a new production plant for Power Handling in Post Falls, he said.