You probably knew 23rd Street boasts an eclectic mix of New York City staples, from the Flatiron Building to Shake Shack and of course everyone’s favorite source of drywall, the Home Depot. But you probably didn’t know West 23rd Street is also home to a secret society known as the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York. It’s not as secretive as it was back in the 1800s during the height of the Freemason days, but this office building-turned-Masonic Temple is a bizarre site and definitely warrants exploration. Take a look.

What is a Masonic Lodge?

The Freemasons are a fraternal organization that traces its origins back to medieval stonemasons and craft guilds. There are an estimated six million Freemasons worldwide. On a local level, Masonic lodges serve as the basic organizational unit with a grand lodge overseeing and governing these regional subsidiary lodges. Lodges meet regularly to conduct Masonic rituals and ceremonies as well as to attend the logistics of running a local organization.

Typically thought of as a secret society, the Freemasons actually welcome new members, but never recruit. New members must be referred by current Freemasons or actively seek out membership themselves. There is no religious affiliation or political orientation to the group. The only requirements is that members are men. (Sorry, ladies.) Although Freemasonry is not as cryptic a fraternity as it’s sometimes construed to be, no one really knows what goes on during the ceremonies inside a Masonic Lodge unless they are one of the initiated.

History and Design of the Grand Lodge of New York

Since the 19th century, an unassuming office building in Flatiron has been home to the largest Masonic Lodge in New York state. Formally known as the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York, the lodge is still active today and regularly hosts more than 60 other lodges. The hall was built by Harry P. Knowles, a master mason and architect, and spans two office buildings on 23rd Street and rises 19 floors.

Beginning in the 1980s, the hall underwent a massive restoration project lead by Felix Chavez, a New York City interior designer and preservationist whose past projects include the American Museum of Natural History, The New York Public Library 5th Avenue Branch and the New York Life Building. The Hall boasts 12 separate ceremonial meeting rooms — each of which has been lavishly decorated and refurbished under Chavez’s direction. Design inspiration ranges from Ancient Egyptian to Classic Roman to Medieval Gothic.

Famous Members of the Grand Lodge of New York

The first Grand Lodges in America were in Pennsylvania, but after the Revolutionary War, Grand Lodges began forming within each state of the new union. At over 200 years old, the Grand Lodge of New York is the longest active Masonic Temple in the United States.  Members have ranged from local colonial heroes like Robert Livingston to New York City politicians and celebrities including FDR, Harry Houdini and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. None, however, are more famous than the one that lives in the library. A giant statue of George Washington decked out and gilded in Masonic regalia has loomed over the library meeting hall since the 1880s.

So what’s the Freemasons big secret?

You don’t have to be a Freemason to enter the temple.

About NYC Uncovered

StreetEasy has partnered with Open House New York to create a nine-part video series that celebrates our city’s amazing architecture and urban design. Over the next two weeks in anticipation of the annual Open House New York Weekend (Oct. 15-16), we will be releasing the videos, each of which spotlights a single site of architectural, historic or planning significance. The videos provide a behind the scenes look at sites New Yorkers know and love but otherwise might not access to. We hope the videos enlighten, inspire and fuel your love of the complex, brilliant and ever-changing city we all call home.