For 67 years, the massive temple of the Scottish Rite society in the 1700 block of 16th Street NW has loomed large over its neighbors, dwarfing three-story row houses on nearby S Street and passers-by who gawk at two gigantic sphinxes guarding its heavy doors.
Modeled on an ancient Turkish palace and topped by a 100-foot-high dome, the building, national headquarters for more than 650,000 Scottish Rite members, still dominates the horizon between 15th and 16th streets. The temple's occupants, after 30 years of quiet land purchases and controversial demolitions of a dozen Victorian homes on the block, now control the future of a major portion of the once-residential area.
The Scottish Rite's purchase and destruction of the houses have displaced several families, frightened two of the three who remain on the block and outraged community groups who are seeking historic district designation for their block and other neighborhoods along 15th Street.
The society's gradual acquisition of the valuable land also has prompted charges that a lawyer who has represented the group and real estate agents tried to harass owners into selling their homes. Residents are further troubled by the organization's refusal to reveal its plans for the property.
Last week, as workmen carted away the rubble of a row house bought by the temple last May and torn down this winter, residents and local preservationists again decried the loss of another home to the wrecker's ball.
"It's scandalous, what has happened in this neighborhood," said Ann Sellin, the zoning law committee chairman of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association. "Even though that land is zoned strictly for residential use, the houses are vanishing one by one," she said. "The temple is scrambling to tear them down."
According to land records in the city's Finance and Revenue Department, the Scottish Rite society now owns roughly two acres of choice downtown real estate, property that city officials conservatively estimate is worth more than $2 million.
Congress exempted the society from paying District property taxes on the temple site and land that was acquired in the early part of this century. That property and the rest of the land between it and 15th Street are zoned for residential use only.
Officially, the 16th Street temple is the seat of the Supreme Council, Mother Church of the World, of the Thirty-Third and Last Degree of Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry--the governing body for society branches across the country.
Top Scottish Rite officials last week refused to comment on the house demolitions or the society's plans for the future of the area. "We are really not interested in any publicity," said Fred Kleinkenecht, the society's secretary.
Some Masons, however, said Scottish Rite leaders have privately discussed building a national education center on the site for children handicapped by aphasia, a brain disorder that affects speech. Children afflicted by aphasia and dyslexia, a reading disability, are among the favorite charities of the Scottish Rite, which operates children's hospitals in Dallas and Atlanta.
For all its charitable work, however, the society's penchant for secrecy has strained what few ties it ever had with the S Street community, whose residents said they distrust the group because of its unwillingness to discuss its plans for the block.
"What disturbs me about the Scottish Rite people is that . . . they have not announced their intentioned use of the property," said Harry Vonk, president of the Midway Civic Association, which represents residents who live north of K Street between 14th and 18th streets. "They've torn all these houses down and said nothing publicly about what they intend to do. Why create the mystery?"
According to two society members who asked not to be identified, the group has carefully cultivated an aura of mystery since its founding in 1801 in South Carolina.
Composed of an elite number of Masons who have reached the 33rd, or highest, degree of learning in Masonic lore, the Scottish Rite has included several U.S. presidents and members of Congress: former presidents Harry Truman and Gerald R. Ford were 33rd-degree members of the society, a tour guide tells visitors to the temple.
The temple society, which is all-male, also traditionally has been all-white, according to local leaders of the Prince Hall Scottish Rite, the group's mostly black affiliate. "They are a white . . . organization," said Henry A. Dove, a 33rd-degree Scottish Rite Mason, who attained the honor through the Prince Hall affiliate. Kleinkenecht would not comment on the society's membership policy.
Like the society itself, the temple is an enigma to non-Masons, who are denied access to some of the building's cavernous rooms. Cool, dark interiors, some lavishly decorated with Italian marble, boast replicas of ancient Greek and Egyptian furniture and statues, thick velvet curtains, leather-covered pews and a pair of ornate urns--the burial sites of two prominent rite officials.
The temple's richly decorated rooms are rarely used, however. Once every two years, about 20 members of the Supreme Council gather to conduct society business. The next such convocation, which occurs only in odd-numbered years, is scheduled for October.
Four years in the making, the temple was completed in 1915. Decades later, the society began buying land between the temple and 15th Street. One of the first house purchases, city records show, came in 1954, when the society bought the lot at 1512 S St. NW; other lots were obtained as they became available.
In the 1960s and 1970s, at least seven houses were sold to Peter Burich, according to District land records. Burich, 67, a Washington lawyer and Scottish Rite member, said in a telephone interview that he has occasionally represented the organization on tax matters.
According to the land records, Peter Burich bought seven houses on S and 15th streets between 1967 and 1971, later selling five of them to the society. City records indicate that Burich still owns two prime parcels of land: one at S and 15th streets, the other nearby on 15th street. Burich said, however, that he has also transferred those properties to the society. Both lots are vacant.
Burich said he was "just the straw" in some of the some society's property acquisitions. "I was engaged by the society to purchase the lots," he said. He said that after buying the parcels, he later transferred the titles to the society.
Several of the block's former residents--and two who still live there--said that in years past, Burich and other agents for the Scottish Rite society repeatedly pressured them to sell their houses.
"Ten years ago, there was a lot of heat on us to leave," said Hannah Hall, who has lived in the brick house at 1504 S St. NW since 1959. "Over the years, we've gotten all kinds of offers from real estate agents. One even offered to give us his house in exchange for this one.
"But every time one came, we just showed him the door," said Hall, whose house--where her husband, Richard, was born and raised--is now the only one left on the S Street side of the block. "Until we paid off the mortgage, we never did feel very safe about holding out. But I think things are okay for the forseeable future."
Alfred L. Randolph, Hall's next-door neighbor during the 1970s, told a reporter in 1975 that he also had been pressured to sell his property. A year earlier, Randolph said, bulldozers demolishing the adjoining house damaged his gate and flower bed. Within months after Randolph death two years ago, the society had acquired his house and razed it.
Theresa Duren, who lives just south of Hall at 1722 15th St.NW , recalled several visits by real estate agents asking that her mother sell the house. "We were harassed then, but I don't feel threatened like I used to," Duren said last week.
"I really feel bad about what's happened here," she said. "All those houses were in good shape. They were torn down to intimidate the people who stayed."
Duren, 47, who grew up on the block, said her house has historic significance because it was once was the home of the descendants of Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century black abolitionist.
Both Hall and Duren said they will not sell their houses. Duren said the owners of the third remaining house on the block, whom she identified as the Snowden family, have told her they have no intention of selling their house at 1722 15th St.
Ethel Timoshenko, a former resident of 1730 15th St. NW, said that during the 1970s, Burich, the society's attorney, "was constantly trying to get us to sell. He and the others were very persistent all along."
She and her husband, Peter, who now live in McLean, sold their home to Burich in September 1969 for about $30,000.
Burich denied that he pressured any homeowners to sell, however. "There was no pressure," he said. "When they were ready to sell, we were ready to buy."
"For the last 10 to 15 years there has been a pattern of harassment against the tenants to force them out of their homes," said Sellin of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association.
Not every homeowner on the block claims to have been pressured to sell his house, however. Joseph F. Edwards, a retired social worker for District schools, said he bought a 15th Street house in December 1974 as an investment. "By then," Edwards said, "it was becoming clear what the temple was doing: buying up every lot on the block."
Last May, the temple paid Edwards $200,000 for the house and razed it. The cleanup of the rubble on that lot continued last week.
"I didn't have any problem at all about selling that house," said Edwards, who now lives on S Street across from the temple itself. "The temple has been a good neighbor. I'm sure that whatever they build there will be a good project."
Others are not so certain. "My fear and darkest suspicion is that the temple is going to . . . try to put some commercial, mixed-use structure here," said Vonk of the Midway Civic Association.
Vonk, Sillen and others are waiting for the Joint Committtee on Landmarks, the federal-city authority on historic designations, to rule on their year-old application to have the block declared part of an historic district. A ruling in the preservationists' favor could slow other demolitions in the area, they said.
A hearing on the application probably will be held in March, said Ernest Harper, the landmarks committee chairman.