No takers yet for historic Masonic Temple in downtown Fort Smith

story by Ryan Saylor

A piece of Fort Smith history has been on the market for a year, still sitting unsold even with the property listed for only $14.27 per square foot.

The fact that the Masonic Temple at 200 N. 11th St., in downtown Fort Smith is still on the market may be alarming to some, but listing agent Jerry Seiter, Nunnelee Wright Commercial Properties' man tasked with unloading the building for the Free Masons, said it was really no surprise.

"I think I made the statement when it was listed that it could take two years or more to sell this thing," he said. "I think two years is realistic."

The facility, a three story concrete structure that includes an auditorium capable of seating 900, is listed for $750,000. The price, Seiter said, is a bargain.

"I talked to a builder about (what it would cost) building it from the ground up. He said it would probably cost $20 million or more to build it in today's market."

That's right. To build a comparable building to the one for sale, a building built in 1929, the cost would run upward of $20 million.

The price on the facility is one of the selling points for any organization that may look to buy the structure. According to Seiter, so far there have been very few serious considerations.

"Churches, the city of Fort Smith. We talked to them early on about using it as their city offices," he said.

Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman knocked down speculation that the city would consider moving into the structure, built the same year as the massive stock market crash that came to be known as Black Tuesday.

"When speculation like that comes up, it's kicked up internally. But no determination has been made as to how it would meet the city's needs," he said.

Besides the nearly century old building not meeting the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Dingman said the location was also troublesome.

"The location seems good, but it also has a lot of constraints," he said, alluding to the lack of an extensive parking area as well as being in a spot that could cause traffic headaches for workers or citizens coming or going at any given time.

Mayor Sandy Sanders, who recalled watching the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" in the facility's theater as a teenager, confirmed Dingman's statements on how well the facility could work for the city.

"Having been in there years ago, it wouldn't work," he said.

Seiter said another possibility was the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith purchasing the facility, though there is now considerable doubt.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they end up with it down the road, but their purchase of Second Street Live may have hindered that to some degree, at least for a little while. But churches, the city of Fort Smith, UAFS — those are the logical uses of it."

Regardless of who purchases the building, Seiter said the comparatively low price would free up any eventual buyer to invest considerable money in renovations.

"I wouldn't have any idea what costs that would take," he said. "It depends on how extensive they want to go. I wouldn't have any idea."

Whatever happens, residents can at least know that the building will continue thanks to its designation as a historical building.

"There's restrictions to the exterior (due to the designation). I don't think you can do any kind of major changes to the exterior. But I think the interior is pretty much wide open. I think you can do whatever you need to within the codes of the city. But being registered as a historical landmark, you are very limited on what you can do to the exterior. (Making it handicap) accessible, that's pretty much all you can do."

Two members of the Free Masons were contacted a total of six times over three days for comment, but phone calls were not returned.

Following are some details of the history and features of the Masonic Temple according to

• Architects were George Mann of Little Rock, who was assisted by Harlson and Nelson of Fort Smith.

• The general contract was let to Gordon Walker, Little Rock, on a bid of $208,500, on June 11,1927. Ground was broken June 25. Other contracts not included in the general award, together with furnishings and equipment, brought the total cost of the Temple to $385,000.

• The cornerstone was laid Dec. 7, 1928, and the Temple was opened to the general public on Sept. 7-8,1929.