Springfield grew up around the Shrine Mosque. On the left, it’s shown just before completion in 1923; the right is February 2016. (Vintage photo courtesy the Shrine Mosque)
Memories don’t need a sound system to echo through the Shrine Mosque. For nearly a century, history has unfolded from its stage — which, when it was built, was second only in size to to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
But that memory making isn’t limited to Shriners. Although the Morrocan-style structure was built to be their home, its use for community events has long imprinted the building in the heads and hearts of others in the Ozarks, too.
“You always hear stories,” says Shriner Douglas Pitts, who serves as a trustee and historian for the mosque. “‘Oh, I remember my dad taking me there to the circus,’ or to wrestling or to this or to that.
“That’s not just a Shriner thing. That’s a Springfield — that’s a Missouri — thing.”
Back in the beginning
Even though the Shrine Mosque dates back to 1923, Abou Ben Adhem — the tribe behind the mosque — originated two decades earlier. The early 1900s was a popular time for fraternal organizations, says Pitts, who notes that one out of three men was a member of such groups. “So it was a big thing,” he says. “There was a growing population.”
Three years after the tribe was organized, a new Masonic Temple was constructed on Walnut Street (where Hotel Vandivort is today). The Shriners resided there, too — but in 1920, the temple voted to erect the Shrine Mosque.
Ground was broken for the Shrine Mosque on Oct. 4, 1921. According to the Springfield Republican, Imperial Potentate Ernest A. Cutts of Atlanta, Ga., removed “the first shovelful of dirt preparatory to the erection of one of the finest mosques in the middle west.” (Courtesy of the Shrine Mosque)
Ground was broken the next year, but the day involved more than moving some dirt. Twelve hours of continuous entertainment were also on the schedule:
“Following the parade and the ground breaking ceremony a ceremonial will be held at Conventional Hall, followed by a banquet at the Masonic temple on Walnut Street at 6:30. A dance will be given at Milligan’s hall following the banquet and at 12 o’clock the Midnight Follies will be given at the Landers-Orpheum theater as the closing feature.”
Work on the Shrine Mosque took nearly two years — and required some men who weren’t afraid of heights. This shot is from July 15, 1922, a few months short of the project’s halfway point. (Courtesy of the Shrine Mosque)
Two years after ground was broken, the 4,750-seat Shrine Mosque was complete. The building cost $520,000 — around $7.2 million today — and was dedicated on Nov. 3, 1923.
If one of the local newspapers is to be the judge, its dedication was a huge deal: The event took up the entire front page of the Springfield Republican, which was labeled as the “Shrine Edition.” The paper described the building in detail, discussed officials who would be on hand, printed a picture of the building’s exterior and gave a schedule for the day.
Even the Shrine’s top official — Imperial Potentate Conrad V. Dykeman — made an appearance, but he was only one of many attendees. “Six special trains, in addition to many special Pullmans on regular trains, will bring thousands of visitors to Springfield for the biggest Masonic event which has been held in this part of the state,” reported the newspaper.
The building’s size and grandeur were strategic: The mosque was built to suit the growth that was expected in Springfield due to the railroad industry. “At certain points in our great city’s history, people thought (we might) be bigger than St. Louis,” says Pitts. “The money was there, the will was there and it went from there.”
Details abound at the mosque: “The interior is in ornamental plaster staff with numerous panels,” said the Springfield Republican in 1923. “The doors and woodwork are in mahogany finish. The exterior front is in polychrome terra cotta with tan and blue the predominating colors.”
The Shrine Mosque’s Moorish architecture wasn’t solely found in Springfield. Instead, it was found in Shriners’ buildings nationwide — and tied back to a Moroccan-themed party the organization’s leaders attended. “They just loved the Moroccan feel and the color scheme and pretty much everything that went along with it, including the notorious fezzes we all wear,” says Pitts.
Though the building’s exterior reveals great detail in design, its interior screams it even more. “(The building) was built at a time when everybody took great pride in craftsmanship,” notes Pitts. “Everything that’s down there is handmade. You know, you can’t go to Lowe’s and get what we have in that building.”
Bright blues, teals and purples — painted on carved designs — greet visitors as they walk through the doors. “They wanted it to have that color to really … stand out,” says Pitts. Cut and stained-glass windows let sunlight shine through, and even the floor tiles, a little bit “off” in some places, tell a tale of concentrated effort. “That’s because every one of those (tiles) was handmade,” says Pitts.
A brief look inside the Shrine Mosque
Those details — many of which remain today — help draw visitors. Some who stop by are Route 66 travelers, since the mosque is listed as an attraction on many of those must-see lists. “Weekly someone comes here from that list,” says Wes Joy, director of Fraternal Affairs of the mosque. “(The building’s) just interesting. People want to see what it is.”
Other visitors, misled by the mosque’s name, come seeking religious reflection. “We’ve actually had people who have shown up (thinking) it was a mosque,” says Pitts. In response, Springfield’s Shriners placed a sign advising visitors that the building isn’t tied to Islam. Other Shriner-related mosques have tried to alleviate confusion through their websites, or even by changing their name (something members of Springfield’s Shrine Mosque don’t plan to do.)
Such things, however, aren’t done to demean Muslims, says Pitts. “It’s done because we’re just not religious,” he notes.
A sign on one of the Shrine Mosque’s front doors advises visitors that it is not a religious site.
While the mosque was primarily intended to be the Shriners’ home, it quickly became a community hub. In 1924, both the Republican and Democratic State Conventions were held at the mosque; that same year (and in 1928), John Phillip Sousa conducted concerts there. It also sat on the sideline of history as the aforementioned Route 66 came into existence and ran right in front of the building in 1926.
Especially after the Convention Hall closed in 1933, the Shrine Mosque became Springfield’s — and the Ozarks’ — top place to hold large events. There were wrestling matches, roller derbies, religious revivals, telethons, danceathons, Miss Missouri pageants, talent shows, and war bond drives, just to name a few of the attractions.
A car show at the Shrine Mosque circa 1930. (Courtesy of the Shrine Mosque)
The mosque has also gathered Springfield’s residents in times of turmoil. One example is D-Day, when Springfield’s citizens were awoken “by newsboys loudly calling extras — for the first time since Pearl Harbor — and news of the invasion dominated everything throughout the day,” reported the Springfield Leader & Press.
In response to the news, the mosque opened its doors for a community prayer service. The event, which was led by clergy representing local African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant congregations, was reported in the newspaper as emotional:
“Men, who cannot cry, children who do not quite understand, and women with heads bowed and handkerchiefs held to their eyes, were present. The men sat with their heads in their hands. Women cried softly and even the children were subdued and quiet.”
In happier days, the mosque saw noteworthy names including Harry S Truman, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Willie Nelson, Will Rogers, Dale Carnegie, Archduke Felix of Austria and Bob Hope, as well as the orchestras of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway and Glenn Miller.
Harry S Truman was made an honorary member of Abou Ben Adhem on June 6, 1952 at the Shrine Mosque. John K. Hulston, past Potentate, later wrote that “I shall always remember the President tapping his foot to the hoe-down music. As President of the Chamber of Commerce, I sat near President Truman when he told Ralph Foster and Lester Cox that this was the best time he could ever remember having.” (Courtesy of the Shrine Mosque)
Music producer Si Siman, one of the key names behind Springfield’s Ozark Jubilee, also played a role in getting some of those names to the Shrine Mosque. A few of his memories were shared in a short history of the mosque in 1991; one of those recounts featured Tommy Dorsey. Siman recalled that people had been excited about Dorsey’s visit — until his lead vocalist, Jack Leonard, left the band shortly before the group’s Springfield stop.
“Some people wanted their money back because a new singer had replaced the popular Leonard,” remembered Siman. “The unknown new singer was Frank Sinatra.”
Another up-and-coming name on the mosque’s stage was Elvis Presley, who appeared at there on May 17, 1956. He was 21 at the time, just on the cusp of his career, and tickets sold for $1.50, $2 and $2.50. The crowd was mostly comprised of enthusiastic young women: According to the newspaper, the newcomer generally performed “as if he were imitating a combination of Johnny Ray, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, a howling turpentined dog and a holy roller preacher.”
Challenges along the way
Despite its significance in Springfield’s history, the Shrine Mosque has been plagued by financial difficulties. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 made the situation especially challenging: Not long after it opened, the Shrine lost control of mosque and occupied it largely as tenants for 12 years. In 1941, possession went to bondholders — but in June 1942, the Shriners launched a drive to raise $75,000 and get their building back.
The efforts involved the entire community, as evidenced by an appeal from attorney Arthur Curtis via the Springfield Leader & Press: “Lots of people have obligations to the mosque besides Shriners,” he said. “There are organizations here which have had use of the building time and time and time again without charge. I think that if we can get it back, we should increase its usefulness to the public. The mosque is the only great auditorium we have here. Every citizen of Springfield should take pride in it whether he is a Shriner or not.”
The community came through: Two months later, $35,000 had been raised toward the debt, and the rest was paid through a loan from the Guaranty Life Insurance Company of Nebraska. “For Shriners, the deal is complete — except for paying off the mortgage, which will be done, (attorney Harold) Lincoln said, at the rate of $250 a month,” reported the newspaper.
Three years later, that mortgage was paid off and the Shriners held a party to celebrate. It was predicted that 3,000 Shriners — and their wives — would attend, which included a parade, initiation ceremonies for 200 candidates, a banquet, floor show, dance — and burning the mortgage.
But the mortgage’s disappearance didn’t mean that the Shriners were out of the woods financially. Major renovation work has been required throughout the mosque’s existence — and by 1973, the Shriners were ready to call it quits. A vote was held, and the Springfield Leader & Press reported that a majority of 500 Shriners decided to vacate the mosque and build a new structure.
That didn’t end up happening. According to Pitts, the reason for that was simple: nostalgia. “They realized that (the mosque) was not only part of their history, but a part of Springfield’s history as well,” says Pitts. “And that’s kind of how we view it now.”
Today and tomorrow
The Shrine Mosque’s auditorium in February 2016. Even today, the stage remains one of the largest west of the Mississippi River — and its curtain is original.
After the Shriners decided to keep the mosque, years were spent on historic preservation and restoration work. In 1982, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and five years later, a major renovation project began that continued for several years.
But despite those efforts, work isn’t finished. “It’s a daily job just to keep this building preserved,” says Joy. And while its age and historic elements lend uniqueness to the structure, they also work against it — such as in 2013, when the longtime Shrine Circus was forced to relocate to JQH Arena due to USDA regulations.
Working through some current issues — including plumbing, roofing and air conditioning — are crucial for the mosque to see more traffic again. “But to do that, we need the money to bring it up to code,” says Pitts. “We need the funding to bring it up to where we could compete with some place like Juanita K. or the O’Reilly Center.”
Vintage seats fill the mosque’s balcony. Shriners are currently gearing up for a $1.3 million restoration of the structure’s exterior.
Some of those efforts will materialize through a $1.3 million renovation the Shriners are preparing for the building’s exterior. However, restoration is tricky because Shriners don’t fundraise for themselves: The money members raise goes to 22 Shriners Hospitals nationwide, where children receive free medical care.
That leaves outside sources as the main option. “We’re looking for grants, we’re looking for money, we’re looking for angels just to drop off half a million dollars for us,” says Pitts. “So if you know anybody, definitely send them our way.”
It’s those things that Pitts hopes can be changed so that the building can serve the community to a greater extent than it does today. “That’s just the truth of it,” he says. “It’s a modern world, and we’ve got to modernize ourselves.”