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No takers yet for historic Masonic Temple in downtown Fort Smith

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A piece of Fort Smith history has been on the market for a year, still sitting unsold even with the property listed for only $14.27 per square foot.

The fact that the Masonic Temple at 200 N. 11th St., in downtown Fort Smith is still on the market may be alarming to some, but listing agent Jerry Seiter, Nunnelee Wright Commercial Properties' man tasked with unloading the building for the Free Masons, said it was really no surprise.

"I think I made the statement when it was listed that it could take two years or more to sell this thing," he said. "I think two years is realistic."

The facility, a three story concrete structure that includes an auditorium capable of seating 900, is listed for $750,000. The price, Seiter said, is a bargain.

"I talked to a builder about (what it would cost) building it from the ground up. He said it would probably cost $20 million or more to build it in today's market."

That's right. To build a comparable building to the one for sale, a building built in 1929, the cost would run upward of $20 million.

The price on the facility is one of the selling points for any organization that may look to buy the structure. According to Seiter, so far there have been very few serious considerations.

"Churches, the city of Fort Smith. We talked to them early on about using it as their city offices," he said.

Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman knocked down speculation that the city would consider moving into the structure, built the same year as the massive stock market crash that came to be known as Black Tuesday.

"When speculation like that comes up, it's kicked up internally. But no determination has been made as to how it would meet the city's needs," he said.

Besides the nearly century old building not meeting the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Dingman said the location was also troublesome.

"The location seems good, but it also has a lot of constraints," he said, alluding to the lack of an extensive parking area as well as being in a spot that could cause traffic headaches for workers or citizens coming or going at any given time.

Mayor Sandy Sanders, who recalled watching the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" in the facility's theater as a teenager, confirmed Dingman's statements on how well the facility could work for the city.

"Having been in there years ago, it wouldn't work," he said.

Seiter said another possibility was the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith purchasing the facility, though there is now considerable doubt.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they end up with it down the road, but their purchase of Second Street Live may have hindered that to some degree, at least for a little while. But churches, the city of Fort Smith, UAFS — those are the logical uses of it."

Regardless of who purchases the building, Seiter said the comparatively low price would free up any eventual buyer to invest considerable money in renovations.

"I wouldn't have any idea what costs that would take," he said. "It depends on how extensive they want to go. I wouldn't have any idea."

Whatever happens, residents can at least know that the building will continue thanks to its designation as a historical building.

"There's restrictions to the exterior (due to the designation). I don't think you can do any kind of major changes to the exterior. But I think the interior is pretty much wide open. I think you can do whatever you need to within the codes of the city. But being registered as a historical landmark, you are very limited on what you can do to the exterior. (Making it handicap) accessible, that's pretty much all you can do."

Two members of the Free Masons were contacted a total of six times over three days for comment, but phone calls were not returned.

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BUILDING HISTORY
Following are some details of the history and features of the Masonic Temple according to mastermason.com.

• Architects were George Mann of Little Rock, who was assisted by Harlson and Nelson of Fort Smith.

• The general contract was let to Gordon Walker, Little Rock, on a bid of $208,500, on June 11,1927. Ground was broken June 25. Other contracts not included in the general award, together with furnishings and equipment, brought the total cost of the Temple to $385,000.

• The cornerstone was laid Dec. 7, 1928, and the Temple was opened to the general public on Sept. 7-8,1929.

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Comments

A bargain

Too bad the city has predetermined the building won't work. Must already have plans for something else which will likely cost $20 million or more. Limited parking and traffic in an urban downtown? Imagine that! Maybe they should build the Fort Smith city hall in Barling so it's more convenient to city staff with plenty of space for parking. In the meantime, let's keep paying rent.

Square Feet

It appears that the Old Temple lacks the number of square feet necessary to house the Egos of some of our city leaders and cost does not play a part in decision making because they are not spending their own money!

City Hall Needs

The building is probably short on square footage from looking at it and it is not an "adaptable" building to try to make into an office building. Would cost more to try to adapt it than to build new. There is a higher and better use and is most likely an Assembly use that will go back in there, hopefully. Otherwise, it will sit and deteriorate like way too many nice old structures and eventually be torn down. I hope not.

Bigger Basement Needs

You are correct on "City Hall Needs" because it needs a bigger basement to house all the wasted studies that have cost the taxpayers countless millions of dollars and it needs some leaders with a little common sense!

Repairs

If you actually took the time to examine the situation you would discover the massive amount of repairs already needed to the masonic temple as well as the massive amount of upkeep that will be required of such a building. Not to mention updates to make it compliant. Add to those expenses you also have the fact that the insides are completely unsuited for offices. Yes there is much square footage but much of it is in hallways, foyers, etc. It would not be easy to make it into any kind of organized office structure. Just because it is relatively cheap and available doesn't mean we all need to jump on the bandwagon to get the city to bail it out. Don't get me wrong either, the current rental situation is pretty insane and just makes no sense. However there are many buildings sitting empty downtown that are large enough and have the proper infrastructure to make for a great city hall without building a new building and without trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Dollar Facts

They could buy the Temple for 750,000 dollars, spend another 2,500,000.00 (2 million 500 thousand dollars) on the remodel, let a local contactor build more water park for 3 million dollars less, and still be a lot of taxpayer money ahead because they would escape paying rent! Why not save a lot of taxpayer money? Egos are huge and it ain't their money going down the drain. Can you think of anything for apropos that the new city hall being called the new "temple of doom?"

"Temple Of Doom"

Still rolling on the floor laughing at that comment but this city administration is so far out of touch with reality that they couldn't find the Temple without Devine Intervention.

Musical buildings

Wouldn't they merely be adding a vacant building downtown by moving to the old Temple theater? I fail to see the gain in that move.

If Business Was Booming

And Fort Smith was growing at a rapid pace, then we could see the need for a new City Hall. A new building won't stop the decline in business growth so before we talk about luxury accommodations for the pharaohs, lets get the city moving in a positive direction where sales tax revenues are growing rather than shrinking! Where are the plans for community events like the Bikes, Blues, and Barbeque event in NW Arkansas that bring 400,000 to 500,000 visitors to their merchants and creates an economic stimulus of hundreds of millions of dollars? Lets get rolling with plans that produce results because putting a new cover on an old horse won't win the race.

No wonder

The signs of why downtown continues suck and why Fort Smith is stuck in a depression is all in this article. That segment of the article about the historic designation limiting what is allowed to be done to the building is the reality behind why Fort Smith won't grow. Who wants to buy a cold, concrete structure with no windows? Given the building does "look cool" it provides no real function as a place to run a business, unless we want to turn it into a haunted house. Isn't it actually stamped into the concrete with the Masonic name and such? It's "historic" can't change that, right? You cannot designate every building, every house, every tree, and every brick as a historic monument, place regulations them all and then expect a growing, emerging economy while trying to also control what goes where in newer parts of the town. No business wants to be a part of that and nobody with any common sense will buy a building they can't adapt to their needs. This city is a failure and will continue to be until common sense is used to help it grow. Until then it's going to continue its path to a smaller Detroit ghetto.

Its a really cool looking

Its a really cool looking building from the outside, I'd buy it if I had hundreds of millions of dollars and turn it into a house. Unfortunatly I don't think its going to happen. They already have a couple of haunted houses in the old army buildings on what used to be Chaffee.

Wonder Not

Maybe the City should purchase the Temple to store the study after study they wasted millions and millions of tax dollars on that produced no results. It could be a museum of fact on how to "not run a city".

Gimme a "D"

Can anyone say, due diligence? Then roll the municipally loaded dice to lose money. There are many other places in this nation to invest less money and profit more than any amount of money ever would in Fort Smith. Don't learn the hard way like I did. Hold on to your wallet.