I have seen (and walked through) Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. It’s impressive. Certainly majestic. Breathtaking, no doubt.
But not my favorite. My favorite what, you ask? Favorite building.
Yeah, I have one. What, you don’t?
That’s what we are covering today. My favorite building. Certainly my favorite building in Peoria and quite possibly my favorite building in the whole wide world.
And it’s such because of my memories there in that building as a child. In case you haven’t noticed from my previous contributions to this blog, I’m a nostalgia nut and partial to things that evoke certain feelings and trigger special memories to me. I assume I’m not the only person out there like this. My favorite movie of all time is The Wizard of Oz, not that I’ve seen it in years, but I loved it too much as a kid to have the heart to replace it with something else (and really, there isn’t any better movie. Some come close, but not quite.)
I’m talking about The Scottish Rite Cathedral, located at 400 NE Perry in Peoria. This building serves as the home of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Bodies of the Valley of Peoria, a Freemasonry organization that boasts around 2,100 members locally. I have absolutely no idea how these organizations work, their philosophies or practices, I only know that my grandfather was involved there, and that’s how I came to discover it. I’m just here to talk about their building.
As a child, I fostered a curious interest in performing after attending numerous Caterpillar Employees Chorus shows and local theatre productions, practically since birth. The family connection to the Scottish Rite got me an “in” when they needed kids for their drama productions, and my first experience as an “actor” was as a Cratchit kid with about 6 or 7 lines in their production of “A Christmas Carol” in December, 1990. And what a stage to make your debut on! We’ll move inside shortly.
The cornerstone of the Scottish Rite Cathedral was laid on May 7, 1924...really, that’s it? It seems so much older than that.
The design was inspired by Scottish architecture and is a masterwork of flying buttresses, stained glass, and ornate stonecarving…
But really, if you look around inside the place, not much has changed since (I would guess) the 1960s or so. I recently wandered back in there during the day to reminisce and take some photos to present here. The daytime office staff was exceptionally friendly, I dropped my grandpa’s name (they remembered him), explained what I was doing there, and then I was recognized for my local theatre work. Cool.
And since there appeared to be no “Degree in Progress,” I was ushered right in with courtesy and big smiles.
When I first set foot (or remember first setting foot) in the Scottish Rite at nine years old, this was a phone booth. With landlines now obsolete, it appears to function as nothing but an empty closet. To the left of it, is a sort of swag counter that I can never remember not being there.
Take in this view for just a second, first from the audience…
And then from the stage. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
A lush auditorium with marvelous acoustics that seats well over 1,000 you’d be hard pressed to find another venue in town with this sort of majesty. (“This guy wouldn’t know majesty if it came up and bit him in the face”—is Homestar Runner still a thing? I digress.) It was quite a stage to make your debut on. It still looks huge, but as a kid, the scope of this place was beyond my comprehension.
In those days, I wasn’t sure quite what to think of this place. This building fascinated, confused and especially terrified me all at the same time. A meandering, Gothic labyrinth, it is the stuff that the best “scary dreams” are made of. (Notice I said scary dreams and not nightmares. There’s a difference. The stuff of nightmares would be the enterprising businesswomen that lurk outside the place at night.)
I’m no architect or expert on architecture, but the design of this place is genius. You can’t get lost in it. If you do, just keep walking forward...eventually you will find your way.
As a kid, many play rehearsals were spent with the other kids running through its catacombs, giggling, hiding, and probably getting yelled at by grownups for being loud (the halls echo like a mutha). It always felt like something was hiding in the dark, or lurking just around the corners.
And in all fairness, there probably was. I never knew for sure then, but I know now the place is haunted. For real. I have proof. Keep reading, and I’ll get there.
Lets first wander backstage. Walking by this doorway (located near the stage) was always especially terrifying because a skeleton (yes...a skeleton) used to sit right there in the space by the stairs. The door was usually locked, and the lights were almost always out, and I only ever saw him once or twice, but knowing he was there was frightening enough as a child to never want to walk by there. It was wonderful.
I’m going up these stairs—finally.
Here we are in the fly loft. This is only the second time I’ve ever been up here-the first was in 1988, when I was escorted by my grandpa who literally “showed me the ropes” of what he did here as a Scottish Rite stage crew member. Since there was adult supervision, of course nothing supernatural happened then.
I notice a dusty binder sitting on a stand, and open it…
Wow. This page is dated 1984, and if you read, you can see its referencing the Christmas Carol drops and when they were used in the show.
And speaking of drops, these barren and cavernous rafters once held some of the most beautiful handpainted scenic backdrops you’d ever see in your life, used for “A Christmas Carol” and other productions. My understanding is they began to deteriorate, were taken down and given away to a school or organization in Wisconsin who planned to refurbish them. They were true works of art.
The rusty spiral staircase that brought me up here keeps going! Let’s see where…
This is amazing. This tiny window shows that I’ve reached nearly the top of the building. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in this place in my life, and never seen this view.
Holy belfry, Batman. I think I’ve reached the top. This looks to be about the tallest point of the place!
With no more stairs to climb (and it’s been a dizzying workout), it’s back down I go.
You can find all sorts of fun things backstage around this place…
This row of “torches” has hung here as far back as I can remember, and that piece of sheet metal is used to replicate the sound of thunder. It too, has hung here as long as I can remember…
No time for love Dr. Jones, (forgive me I know, wrong indie movie), but I spy something cool…
Photos of other past productions line the walls backstage…
And this photo, still hanging in a dark corner backstage, is the first Christmas Carol cast I was part of….front row, red jacket, just in case you were wondering…
This one is the stage crew from “Spring Reunion—1987.” My grandpa is second on the right.
Another winding staircase, which takes us to the dressing areas...I ran up and down these steps many times as a wee lad.
Aside from the carpet (which used to be a nice red shag), there isn’t a single thing that has changed down here at all. Those mirrors, makeup tables, benches, etc. have been here as far back as I remember.
This claustrophobic storage area is full of wigs and was always a bit creepy to stand in—another thing that hasn’t changed…shiver...it appears one is trying to escape…
I always thought this bar/counter was cool—no idea what purpose it really serves, but back behind it is storage.
The Scottish Rite membership supplements their aging/decreasing membership by hosting outside events-meetings, receptions, weddings and the like take place here in the Newman Dining Hall, just down the stairs from the auditorium.
This room right near the dining hall, is dedicated to a late member, Wendell Cleaver, that I performed with here about 20 years ago. Not sure what purpose it serves the organization these days, but its just one of many hidden rooms in the nooks and crannies of this place.
On my way back upstairs, I looked at the many ancient photos that completely line the hallways...a lot of faces from the past, many from over a century ago, staring back at you. Heebie-jeebie moment.
And speaking of heebie-jeebies, as promised, it’s story time. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been back to the Scottish Rite since my youth—I’ve attended several weddings and other events here sporadically through the years, most recently the wedding of a cousin in September 2012. I can’t visit this place without wandering around, so sure enough afterwards, my girlfriend Jenny and I did. She spent a fair amount of time here herself as a kid, appearing in numerous dance recitals on the Scottish Rite stage. Lot of memories came racing back for both of us and it was fun to share them with each other.
She decided to take a picture of me on her phone, since it was the first stage I ever performed on and I hadn’t stood on it in years. After she snapped the shot, she looked at her phone and said: “There’s something behind you...”
Let me say that I’ve never believed in ghosts a day in my life. People that go around claiming to “see orbs” or whatever are frankly a bit nuts, I’ve always thought. But sure enough, right behind me, was a human sized blur that really cannot be explained. See for yourself:
That’s not a speck of dust, not a lens flare, nothing that I can rationally explain, except for a ghost. As we started to freak out, she took another shot, just to be sure it wasn’t something in the air or wrong with the camera that caused it.
And this is that photo. Taken just a minute or two later, and in the exact same position (as you can see by the trap in the door), my new friend has now disappeared. I was never ever a “believer” but now I can’t not be. I’m pretty sure now the place is haunted. And I have proof. I wish I could tell my nine year old self all about this. He would crap his little He-Man underwear.
And there you have it folks, the big, wonderful, and I can now, after more than 20 years of suspecting, now verify, haunted Scottish Rite of Peoria. I am a little sad to see the place in a bit of disrepair here and there, but overall its 99% exactly the way I remember it from childhood. Walking through there gives me a blast of the past that I don’t get from anywhere else that I’m still able to visit. If you ever get the chance to attend an event there, poke around a bit and see what you can find (or see what finds you).
Scottish Rite Cathedral
400 NE Perry Ave