Geffen houses a Masonic past
November 14, 2005
By Richard Clough
The unassuming stone building tucked away next to Ralphs grocery store on Le Conte Avenue was once a Masonic clubhouse that played host to scores of Freemasons and Masonic hopefuls and was a staple of Westwood's social scene.
Freemasonry is a global fraternal organization of mostly men who believe in a higher power and engage in philosophic self-exploration as an attempt at spiritual fulfillment.
The organization has been fictionalized and popularized in books and movies such as the 2004 film "National Treasure."
The Geffen's Masonic origins speak of a past association between freemasonry and the UCLA community that was much more prevalent in the early years of the university than it is today.
In many ways, the Geffen is a microcosm of the dissolving relationship between freemasonry and universities.
Freemasonry's historic influence on education has been significant, but while Freemasons were once a visible and viable part of university life, even the mention of freemasonry on campus today elicits mostly blank stares.
"One of the things that was common in the 1920s is that there would be a Masonic lodge associated with a specific university," said John Cooper, the grand secretary of the Masons of California.
Cooper, who received his master's degree from UCLA in 1965, said the lodge associated with UCLA was the Liberal Arts Masonic Lodge, which still exists on Westwood Boulevard but has long since lost its university ties.
And while there are still over 70,000 Freemasons in California alone, few of them are in college. As the visibility of freemasonry on campuses has declined, interest in the organization has waned among the younger set.
Rise of the Westwood Freemasons
Though freemasonry predates UCLA, the university's growth parallels an increasing Masonic presence in Westwood.
Freemasonry's origins are not entirely clear. Basing much of its symbolic ritual on that of medieval European stonemasons, who prepared and placed stones for building construction, the organization's roots are widely considered to be at least several hundred years old.
However, many Freemasons say their organization is often regarded by the general public through a filter of misconceptions and half-truths centering on the organization's secret nature. Masons do have secret handshakes and passwords, and their meetings are often closed to non-Masons, but their stated intentions are aimed at charity and self-improvement, not secrecy. Founded on principles of liberty, fraternity and the search for truth, the interests of freemasonry and universities have long been amenable.
"Freemasonry in American history has often had a relationship with university life," said John Slifko, a Freemason who is currently seeking a doctorate in geography at UCLA, which explores the relationship of print and freemasonry in early American civil society. "You see that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries."
"But in recent decades, freemasonry seems to be becoming more insular, crystallized, withdrawing into itself. It's lost its contacts with university life," he said.
In 1929, the founding year of UCLA's Westwood campus, the building that is currently known as the Geffen Playhouse was founded as the Masonic Affiliates Clubhouse.
The building was one of the first 12 structures in Westwood, according to a history of the playhouse written by local business owner and Westwood historian Steve Sann.
The clubhouse quickly became a popular hangout for UCLA students interested in becoming Freemasons.
"There (were) not a whole lot of things to do there in Westwood, so it was a social center," said Cooper, who frequented the clubhouse as a student in the early 1960s. "We would have dances and social events for Masonic-affiliated students."
The clubhouse featured a ballroom, library, study hall, kitchen, snack bar and dormitories.
Meanwhile, the national Acacia Fraternity – for students who were Masons or were sponsored by Masons – opened a UCLA chapter in 1948 at the corner of Le Conte and Hilgard avenues.
Frank Reinsch, a professor of German for nearly 30 years and a Freemason, was key in setting up the Acacia chapter at UCLA.
Cooper was president of Acacia in the 1963-1964 school year, a period of relative prosperity for freemasonry at UCLA. Cooper said at that time, men could not become Masons until they turned 21 (today the age is 18), but since most of the students were under 21, they had to be sponsored by a Mason in order to join the fraternity. In this sense, Acacia was a sort of association for Masons-in-training.
Beyond the official Masonic organizations in Westwood, Freemasons ranked among the more well-known and well-regarded members of the UCLA community.
The namesake of the Tom Bradley International Center is one of the better-known Masons from the Los Angeles area. Elvin "Ducky" Drake, the legendary track coach after whom Drake Stadium was named, was also said to be a Freemason.
Roscoe Pound, the renowned dean of Harvard University Law School and a well-known Freemason, was one of the first faculty members of the UCLA Law School. But Pound's tenure in Los Angeles was brief and his involvement in Westwood's Masonic community was not necessarily extensive.
"I don't even think that I knew of anything that he participated in other than teaching in the law school," said Frances McQuade, who started as a secretary in the law school in 1949 and calls herself the school's first employee.
Though Pound, who died in 1964, was not active in Los Angeles' Masonic community, his presence on campus nonetheless increased the profile of freemasonry for UCLA students.
A declining presence
In the late 1960s and 1970s, freemasonry took a series of blows on campus when UCLA lost its Masonic-affiliated institutions.
Declining use of the clubhouse led to its closure in 1970.
The building was sold to Westwood proprietors Donald and Kirsten Combs, who converted it into a furniture store before it became the Westwood Playhouse in 1975. Twenty years later, the David Geffen Foundation purchased it and made it the Geffen Playhouse.
In the 1970s, a lack of interest in the Greek system led to the closure of many fraternities and sororities. The Acacia Fraternity house closed in 1974.
Stephen Doan, who graduated from the UCLA Law School in 1974, was a member of the clubhouse when it closed but was not a member of the fraternity.
"It was not very cool to be a member of a fraternity at that time," Doan said.
The 1970s seemed to ring the death knell for freemasonry on campus, and the effects of the organization's decline are visible today in the advanced age of most Masons.
"There are 75,000 Masons in California (and) the average age is somewhere around 80," Slifko said. "It's really losing touch with that which is new."
A lasting legacy
Even with the decline of freemasonry's association with UCLA, a Masonic presence on campus remains.
Despite the closing of the UCLA chapter, the national Acacia Fraternity still has over 30 chapters in the United States, and in 1999, the fraternity started a scholarship for UCLA students.
The Frank H. Reinsch Memorial Scholarship, funded by the fraternity and listed through the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center, gives eight scholarships of at least $4,750 each to UCLA students who are the children or grandchildren of Freemasons.
Angela Campbell, director of the resource center, said the scholarship is a popular one, and had about 20 applicants last year.
Additionally, UCLA boasts one of the few freemasonry experts in the United States. Margaret Jacob, a history professor, estimates that there are only 15 to 20 freemasonry experts in the United States, including herself.
And despite the decreasing visibility of freemasonry among youths, some Masons believe the fundamental nature of freemasonry and its emphasis on self-improvement will maintain a younger membership.
"A lot of men are joining the Masons who are in their 20s and 30s (and) who are interested in the philosophy," Doan said.