Garden to close for Masonic temple renovation

Spring has come to the Temple Garden near Dupont Circle with a profusion of red and purple tulips and yellow daffodils. Snap peas, lettuce and garlic are popping up, soon to be followed by tomatoes, eggplants, beans and melons for harvest throughout summer.

But for all of the cheerfulness that spring brings to gardens, this is a sad season for the gardeners of Temple Garden. The quarter-acre community garden is on private land owned by the Temple of the Supreme Council of the 33rd and Last Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, or House of the Temple, for short.

After more than two decades of providing herbs, flowers, vegetables and fruit, the garden will close in November to accommodate a renovation of the temple, on 16th Street NW.

The garden is needed as a space for construction crews to store and prepare materials as they upgrade the electrical system, plumbing and elevators in the temple. The renovation could take years, and there’s no certainty that the garden will reopen after the work is completed.

The 100 members who plant and maintain the garden on 15th Street NW between R and S streets, and the 75 people on its waiting list, say they will mourn not only the flowers and crops, but also the peace the garden has brought them in a bustling city.

“Everyone is devastated,” said Kerry Kemp, who has gardened at Temple Garden for 15 years. “It’s an urban oasis, a place for refuge.”

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she added, “Everyone came here to have a community and regroup. My mother died last year. I came here to have spiritual sustenance and beauty. It’s beautiful. It’s like the secret garden.”

Temple officials say they had no choice but to close the garden because the renovations are so urgent. The historic building is nearly a century old. Construction had began in 1911 and lasted until 1915.

“We want it to last another 100 years,” said Barbara Golden, a lawyer for the House of the Temple. “The timing, we don’t know. It could take four years, 20 years. We are not going to make a promise; we are not going to commit. At this point, we just don’t know.”

The garden, which opened in 1990, was never just a place to plant seedlings. Families held barbecues. A neighbor who’s an art teacher takes students there to paint.

“There’s a lot more to it than just growing things,” says the Temple Garden association’s president, David Rosner, who became a member in 2006, after four years on the waiting list. “This is part of people’s lives.”

Newcomers didn’t need particular skills. Plenty of members were willing to help beginners.

Annie Nash, who describes herself as a “city girl,” knew little about the growing season, light and soil composition on her first day working in the garden in 1999. Now she is taking horticulture classes offered by the Department of Agriculture.

“I usually go there in the morning or early afternoon on the weekend, thinking I’ll be there an hour or two,” Nash said in an e-mail after reflecting on the garden’s meaning to her. “Six or seven hours later, I realize that I’ve had a great day planting, weeding, or harvesting, and meetings members of the community or folks who just walk by asking about it.”

For Tom Mayes, who has had a plot at Temple Garden since 1998, the experience has brought moments of pure joy — the first goldfinches in late spring and the sunflowers still blooming in September, “brilliant against the clear blue skies.”

“The rosemary bush in my plot is the oldest thing there,” he said. “I’ve used it in hundreds of recipes, but the most frequent is the homemade focaccia. I love the smell of that plant as I brush past it. And I note that, in the meaning of plants, rosemary is for remembrance.”

Golden, the lawyer, said the House of the Temple kept the garden long after it was required to. In 2001, after a long judicial process, the D.C. Council approved the closing of an alley in the center of the property on the condition that temple keep the community garden open for at least another five years.

“Which we did,” Golden said. “And, in fact, we kept it beyond that. We wanted to be a good neighbor. We weren’t doing anything different in the building. We weren’t planning these renovations. We didn’t need it. Now we do.”

The House of the Temple sent a letter to Rosner on April 9 to inform him that the garden would close this year.

Golden said the gardeners will have time to make new arrangements. The closing date is more than seven months away: Nov. 30. Rosner and Kemp said they intend to ask the temple for a meeting to discuss the closure.

“We are going to ask them to reconsider and if there’s anything we could work out,” Rosner said. “Our primary message is going to be, thank you for what you’ve done for us. The secondary is, is there anything we can do? Are there alternatives we can explore?”

If a compromise can’t be found, the group will look for places where it can relocate and start a new garden.

Members hope it won’t come to that.

“This is where our heart is,” Kemp said.

 
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