Monrovia has some spectacular architecture. I discovered one of the most intriguing examples of it on a recent wander near my house – the Masonic Lodge on Benson Street, across from the new American Embassy. This imposing palace-like building, in a state of semi-decay, sits mysteriously atop a steep hill and is surrounded by an ornate white stone fence.
The Grand Lodge of Liberia was founded in 1867 and is linked to the True Whig Party, the Americo-Liberian political party that essentially ruled Liberia as a one-party state from 1878 to 1980; most high-ranking government officials were Masons. Membership in the True Whig Party, as well as membership in the Masonic Order of Liberia, was limited to the Americo-Liberians (the lighter-skinned descendants of the original settlers, freed black slaves from America), to the exclusion of the much larger indigenous population.
On April 12, 1980, Master Sargent Samuel Doe of the Liberian Army led a military coup against President William R. Tolbert Junior. President Tolbert was killed and Doe became Liberia’s first indigenous head of state. Thirteen members of Tolbert’s Cabinet were later executed on the beach in front of a cheering Liberian crowd and international journalists.
Tolbert had been the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Liberia and almost all of his Cabinet members had been Freemasons. The new Doe regime banned the Masonic Order, many Freemasons were executed, imprisoned, or fled the country, and the Temple was angrily vandalized as a symbol of the elite minority that had ruled the nation for so long.
During the 1989-1996 civil war, the Temple was the location of several battles and it ended up a burned-out ruin. Over the years it came to be occupied by some 8,000 squatters. By 2005 the Masons had evicted the homeless families; the re-instated Freemasons society plans to restore the Grand Lodge.
I was tempted to go inside, but apparently entrance to the temple is restricted to members of the secret society. And I never stand a chance at becoming a member – Freemasonry is a men’s only club.