In the forever summer of 1966 my two best friends and I would stray far and wide in our quests for adventure. One of the buildings we passed was Emulation Hall, a square, blue-grey edifice in Rochester Road Canterbury that we knew to be a hangout of the Freemasons. Even then our young minds registered that there was something esoteric (though the word did not occur to us) about them. But beyond that it was just a building; we had more immediate things to concern us.
Had we delved into its history we might have found much to intrigue us. It was built in 1927-28 as a new masonic temple for Emulation Lodge No 141, which alluded to the Emulation Lodge of Improvement (a division of Freemasonry created in 1823 to “emulate” masonic ritual in the form codified by the recently-formed United Grand Lodge of England).
An elusive figure in Melbourne’s inter-war architectural scene, its architect Bennet Dunstan Reynolds was not only a local resident but also a lodge member. He had already designed one Masonic Temple in Melbourne. His early career, which encapsulated study and professional experience in both Melbourne and London, was interrupted by the First World War. On the morning of 11 June 1918, after a communication cable between the trench and the Battalion Headquarters had been damaged by heavy shelling, Reynolds spent three hours under enemy fire repairing 24 separate breaks in the cable. For his “great bravery and determination” he was awarded the Military Medal. A fact that would have impressed three young boys!
The winged decorations on the outside of the building did not go unnoticed by us, but we did not know they were a design identified as the “Egyptian Revival” and based on the winged sun (a circle flanked by cobras and outstretched eagle wings). The building’s flanks and porch all have tapered sides, to evoke Egyptian temple pylons. The facade of the front wing also incorporates symbolic ornament in pressed cement, namely a scarab (beetle) motif in the central recessed bay, and another between the cornice and the lintels to the pylons and the porch. In this case, the winged sun actually has a terrestrial globe at its centre, inscribed with astrological symbols, rather than the true Egyptian “solar disc”.
As to what it was like inside, we could then only imagine. However, we need do so no longer, for as a heritage-listed building its recent renovation by its new owners (who intend it for use as function rooms) has preserved much of the original décor. The main hall and the lodge rooms are the two spaces of particular aesthetic distinction. The former is a large rectangular space that is divided into five bays by a series of pilasters and ceiling bulkheads. Surfaces are enlivened with decorative mouldings including fluted pilaster capitals, palmette (i.e. palm tree leaf) motifs in the cornices, and other ornament to the underside of the bulkheads. Upstairs, the lodge room has a tent ceiling with moulded cornices and borders that include palmette, papyrus reed bundle and lotus flower motifs, and pairs of Egyptian columns flanking narrow panels of astrological symbols.
Perhaps the Freemasons were not so occult as we imagined in our youth, but they certainly have provided us, through Reynolds’ design, with a building that is significant as an outstanding example of the distinctive and highly unusual Egyptian Revival style.