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Shriners Lodge Goes From Fezes to Films, Ritual to Residence

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Here now, Past Lives, in which Curbed contributor Chris Berger explores what some of the country's most interesting residential buildings used to be before they became livable homes. Care to suggest a building with a fascinating past life? Do drop us a line.

Besides wearing funny little hats and zipping around in mini cars at parades, the Shriners have a reputation for building grand lodges. The eye-grabbing Moolah Temple in St. Louis (above) is among their finest and served the fraternal organization for 74 years. It took some time and considerable effort for the landmark to regain its majesty, and now its disparate ventures—apartments, movie theater, bar, and bowling alley—are thriving.

The Moolah Temple of the Mystic Shrine opened in 1914. Located near St. Louis University along Lindell Boulevard, it fit in well among Midtown's architectural showpieces. The Shriners, a branch of the Freemasons, are all about ancient Middle Eastern themes, so the firm Helfenstellar, Hirsh, and Watson designed the building in the Moorish Revival style. The four-story brick building proved too small to meet the Shriners' robust membership, so wings sprouted to the east and west in 1931, and it was enlarged to the north in the 1960s. In the meantime, the area's population declined, and countless residents retreated to the suburbs. The Shriners eventually followed them in 1988, when they moved to a facility in Creve Coeur.

Photos: Restoration St. Louis; Alise O'Brien/Trivers Associates

After the Shriners departed, the Moolah Temple was initially slated to become offices, but that fell apart—as did a few other plans for the site. The years of vacancy mounted, and it appeared the edifice would join the list of lost St. Louis icons. In the meantime, the interior was victimized by gravity and water. Pigeons, however, found the empty Moolah to their liking. None of that deterred Amrit and Amy Gill from purchasing the property in 2002. The husband and wife developers, owners of Restoration St. Louis Inc., wanted to do something with the Moolah that would maintain its unique character and also draw people to Midtown.

Photos: Trivers Associates; Alise O'Brien/Trivers Associates

Most new movies are screened in soulless multiplexes. The few single-screen theatres are usually relics, and new ones seldom open because it's not financially feasible for only one feature to play at a time. New bowling alleys are also rare, particularly in urban areas. So it was unusual when the Gills decided to add both a single-screen theatre and bowling alley to the Moolah. But the entertainment enterprises could not alone pay the bills, so architect Andy Trivers suggested the developers include apartments and lofts within the 110,000-square-foot space.

Photos: Restoration St. Louis; Alise O'Brien/Trivers Associates

Today the Moolah Temple's effervescent front façade—with soaring arches, stately pilasters, and detailed terra cotta and masonry—resembles a set for a live action Aladdin. Once through the cerulean blue doors, the gaudy goodness culminates in the restored lobby, which includes terrazzo floors, colorful glazed tiles, and fez light fixtures—a direct reference to the past owners. Many of the lobby's architectural elements had been hidden by panels that were peeled back during the rehab.

The former auditorium, where the Shriners once held their rituals, is now the 500-seat Moolah Theatre. The cavernous room is topped by a dome and chandeliers. Leather couches and chairs are situated near the foot of the 20-by-45 foot screen, which shows both contemporary and classic movies. Stadium and balcony seating is also available. The theatre's bar occasionally offers theme cocktails that coincide with the film showing on the big screen. The eight-lane bowling alley is below the theatre on the first floor.

Photos: Trivers Associates; Alise O'Brien/Trivers Associates

The 41 apartments and lofts, known as Moolah Place, are accessed via private entries and range from 900 to 1,600 square feet. Trivers Associates placed most of the units around the bowling alley and theatre along the building's perimeter, where the Shriners had offices and meeting rooms. Fourteen residences are stacked behind the movie screen in the six-story fly space—a building within a building. Moolah Place residents don't have to worry about hearing the crash of bowling balls or sharing their intimate moments with an audience of hushed moviegoers, because the units are encased in sound- and vibration killing walls and doors. At the Moolah's rear, a 746-space parking garage was erected where the 1960s addition once stood. Completed in 2004, the $17.2 million rehabilitation benefited from $7.5 million in state and federal historic tax credits. Studios rent for about $800 a month; one bedrooms for $900 to $1,000; two bedrooms for $1,200 to $1,600; and three bedrooms for $1,800 to $2,250.

· Moolah Place [Restoration St. Louis]
· The Moolah Temple [Trivers]
· The Moolah Temple [Built St. Louis]