Spies, Sermons & Suffragettes
BY Katie Shands
Experts have called it one of the most significant historic buildings in the South, but the Hiram Lodge No. 7 Masonic Hall now stands weathered and oft-overlooked. It sits on Second Avenue South in downtown Franklin behind a plywood barrier as water damage threatens the integrity of its front wall, the interior of which is covered in Civil War-era graffiti. The structure’s anterior facade, constructed from bricks handmade by enslaved people, leans forward several inches as if in deference to the more modern buildings around it.
Despite all of this, there’s something about the Masonic Hall that beckons to people. The rare combination of Federal and Gothic Revival styles hint that this isn’t just another old building. Indeed, beyond the battlements and pointed arches lies a trove of remarkable stories waiting to be told. Time may have faded the grandeur of the hall, but the passing years have only made its history all the richer.
Built between 1823 and 1826, the Masonic Hall was hailed as an architectural marvel of its day. It was the first three-story building in Tennessee and, at the time of construction, the tallest structure west of the Allegheny Mountains. In 1973, it was named a National Historic Landmark. The only other property in Williamson County to receive such a designation is the Franklin Battlefield. Today, the hall is the oldest Gothic Revival structure in the state and Franklin’s oldest public building.
The Masonic Hall has played a part in many notable historic events, such as the meeting of the Chickasaw Treaty Council. In August 1830, President Andrew Jackson, Secretary of War John Eaton, and General John Coffee convened in Franklin with Chickasaw leaders to negotiate a treaty that would cede to the U.S. government the last of the Chickasaw lands east of the Mississippi River. This was the only meeting in history between a sitting president and Native American nation to work out a land treaty. After a persuasive speech from President Jackson, the tribe accepted the agreement at the Masonic Hall. Unfortunately, this would ultimately lead to the Chickasaws’ forced removal to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.
The Masonic Hall also played a vital role throughout the Civil War years. During the Federal occupation of Franklin, the building multi-tasked as a hospital, quartermaster offices, barracks, and a rallying ground for local Union sympathizers. Confederate spies used the hall’s roof to scout out and sketch Fort Granger, a nearby Union fortification. As mentioned before, the interior walls still bear graffiti left by these soldiers, featuring their names, regiments, and assorted messages.
For many years, the Masonic Hall was the only building in Franklin large enough to host large crowds. As such, the hall has hosted a myriad of events including political assemblies, the domestic competition for a county fair, and even Suffragette meetings. It served as the town’s first library for a time. It has also been the site of church services for every major denomination in Franklin and an armory during World War I.
Masonic Hall interior, 1920s, photo restored by Dr. James Horner
Ever since the hall’s construction, the Hiram Lodge No. 7 (a “lodge” refers to the members, not the meeting house) has maintained its presence there, making the building the oldest Masonic Hall in continuous use in Tennessee. Thanks to the efforts of the Masons, this 200-year-old structure remains part of Franklin’s historic landscape. However, time has taken its toll, and substantial repairs are now a pressing need. The Masons’ current priority is fixing the front facade, and they are seeking help from the community. The group hopes these renovations will allow them to open the hall to the public, facilitating education about its incredible history.
As a tangible link to Franklin’s past, the Masonic Hall offers a glimpse into bygone eras and fosters a deeper understanding of the community’s heritage. By preserving this landmark, we can help ensure its stories endure for generations to come. To donate, visit the lodge’s website at sites.google.com/site/hiram7news/home.