Fire destroys history as Lincoln Masonic Temple burns in Aurora
A five-story Neoclassical building with a grand history as a Masonic meeting place has burned beyond repair in Aurora, ending more than a decade of decay of the Lincoln Masonic Temple.
The fire that destroyed the nearly century-old building listed on the National Register of Historic Places was reported by a bystander at 9:57 p.m. Monday. Firefighters arrived minutes later and stayed on the scene well into Tuesday morning, attacking heavy smoke and flames from outside the structure, Battalion Chief Jim Rhodes said.
Fears the building could collapse after roughly 13 years sitting vacant kept 36 responding firefighters from entering to fight the blaze from within, Rhodes said. By Tuesday morning, there were no injuries reported and nearby homes were not damaged, but the historic structure was a total loss.
"Losing an iconic building like this in any city is a blow to us and our community, our very fabric as a city that has so many old structures," Mayor Richard Irvin said.
Investigators do not yet know the cause of the fire at the former masonic temple at 104 S. Lincoln Ave, a site located atop a hill in a neighborhood on the city's near east side, not far from downtown.
Police said the blaze does not appear suspicious in nature, but Aurora Fire Chief Gary Krienitz said investigators won't be able to safely go inside the brick and stone structure before demolition begins due to the risk of collapse.
"Our hope would be that, as we demolish the building, we could do it in correlation with the contractors as they could make it safe for us to get in there," Krienitz said.
It will take at least several weeks to tear down the building, said John Curley, the city's chief development officer. He said he hopes the city can deploy demolition crews as early as Wednesday.
"Remediation will be a factor as part of the demolition costs. Right now, it appears the city is going to step in and do the demolition of the building and will likely lien the building when we're done," Curley said. "It does not appear that the property owner either has an interest in repairing it or has the wherewithal to get the demolition accomplished."
The city has established a perimeter around the site with fencing, police and lighting to keep people away from the structure. One family has been temporarily displaced from their home and found housing, though the city was prepared to offer assistance, Irvin said.
Two city streets -- Lincoln Avenue and Benton Street -- also will remain closed indefinitely.
"This was an unfortunate circumstance and a huge loss of a historic building here in the city of Aurora," said Irvin, a Mason himself. "But we'll do our best to keep our community safe and to make sure we go forward with a determination of how we're going to dispose of that building."
Many do not know the structure's history, despite its status as what Aurora Historical Society Executive Director John Jaros called "such an important building."
Built starting in November 1921, the temple opened in March 1924 as a lodge for groups within the Aurora Masonic Alliance, a collection of 10 fraternal organizations with nearly 1,000 members. Masons raised almost $250,000 in less than a week to start construction of what eventually was a $400,000 building, according to historical society archives and a 1982 historic places nomination form to get the building listed on the National Register.
Jaros called the temple a "really vast space" of roughly 50,000 square feet with some areas that never were built out. The historic places nomination said the building contained meeting halls for 223 and 250 people on the second and fourth floors, as well as banquet space for 500.
Designed by architect William Q. Bendus, the temple was built of steel, brick, wood and had a facade of custom-formed cast concrete. Jaros said water damage in recent years has caused pieces of the concrete facing to break off, and he said that's likely what worried firefighters when they arrived.
Masonic organizations sold the temple in the 1980s. It was used as a banquet hall until it closed in 2006, according to Landmarks Illinois.
Property records with the Kane County recorder of deeds list Maria C. Vargas of Aurora as the property's most recent owner. Property records also show Kane County became trustee of the property on Aug. 23. Vargas could not immediately be reached Tuesday.
Police said officers have responded to 10 calls to the building over the past two years. Some of those calls reported trespassing and defacing of the structure.
"But in terms of reports or us responding for any squatters, we don't have any record of that," Deputy Police Chief Keefe Jackson said.
Earlier this year, the structure was in the news when the city sought a contractor to conduct asbestos removal there. But after conducting a walk-through, several companies said they were leery of the job because of debris they found inside, including piles of clothing suspected to contain human waste, according to an audio recording of the city's May 14 finance committee meeting.