Margaret Shaw Johnson spoke at an event at Historic Masonic Temple Theatre in 2014 — the last time the temple’s backdrops were shown. Behind her, layers of hand-painted backdrops make up the treasure chamber vault scene.
by CHRIS ROGERS
They were hand painted in 1909, and starting today, they are for sale. The city of Winona announced that 73 intricate backdrops from the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre are now up for auction, along with various set pieces.
The drops and their scenic accoutrements were used by the Winona Masons Lodge in traditional Scottish Rite ceremonies, in which novices would slowly learn the tenants of freemasonry through watching veterans perform theatrical rituals full of symbolism and hidden meanings. These drops helped the Masonic Temple in Winona earn a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and they were hand-painted by the premier turn-of-the-century scenic painters, Sosman and Landis of Chicago. Death on horseback, a Moorish castle at night, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and an army of knights camped out before battle — these 73 drops depict a wide range of scenes that had deep symbolic meaning for Masons, and which were used in layered sets to create a three-dimensional effect. Some of them have hidden tricks. A seascape includes a little, moveable boat that can slowly sail across the horizon. In another scene, backstage hands can cause glowing lava to slowly pour down the slopes of a volcano.
“It’s rare, and it’s very complete,” Masonic scenery expert Wendy Waszut-Barret said of the city’s full collection at a 2014 event — the last time the drops were shown. The drops have remained at the Masonic Temple since the were first used in the early 1900s, though they were rolled up for storage off-stage by preservation experts in 2014. Deterioration of the stage’s rigging system forced the drops to be taken down in 2014. Now, a 2018 project to replace the rigging system and renovate the theater into a more modern performance space is the impetus for the sale of most of the collection of drops. Out of the original collection of 99, the city is keeping 25 drops, one was damaged beyond repair, and the other 73 are now on-sale.
“They’re just breath-taking,” Winonan Margaret Shaw Johnson said of the drops. That 2014 showing was the last time the public got a chance to see the drops themselves, but this spring, citizens viewed photographs of the collection. Even looking at two-dimensional images of them, some were wowed. As city staff showed off slides of drops likely to be sold, one woman in the audience whispered to her neighbor, “I feel like this is a sin.”
For the next two weeks, the city will accept bids through GovDeals.com for this unique collection. The city of Winona and various governments across North America use this public auction website to sell off their surplus equipment, and buyers can find a wide range of things for sale on the site: school lunchroom tables, truck-mounted telescopic excavators, surplus stoplights, and a car-carrying ferry being sold by the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. As of Monday, there were two other items of fine art for sale on the site: an oil-painting by an unknown artist and a print of a John Singer Sargent painting. The bulk of GovDeals.com’s offerings are office equipment, computers, and old squad cars.
The 73 drops and various other scenic pieces — mostly free-standing set pieces painted to look like trees or temple ruins — are currently being sold all-together as one lot. The sale ends on November 29, and buyers have 10 days to pick up the drops. The drops come “as is/where is.” Buyers are responsible for getting the large objects out of the building, and they must show proof of liability insurance that covers any damage to the building or injury during the removal process. Prospective buyers may contact Winona Arts and Culture Coordinator Lee Gundersheimer at 507-457-8255 for an appointment to inspect the condition of the drops.
There is currently a reserve price for this auction. If the reserve is not met, the city plans to hold another auction, selling the drops by individual scenes rather than one single lot. City officials want to get these drops out of the building before renovation work begins in early January. The City Council plans to use proceeds from this sale to help fund restoration work on the drops the city is keeping.
More information is available at www.govdeals.com under “fine art,” or by searching for “Winona” or “Masonic” on the site.