Last week, I was sent up to scout around Tappan, NY, a beautiful hamlet just over the New Jersey border. Each day, I found myself driving back and forth along a road called Western Highway…
…and in the process, passing a gorgeous brick building that appeared to be abandoned.
Was it a school, or former college? Perhaps the old town hall? On the seventh or eighth drive by, I finally pulled over to find out.
Though the building was still in excellent condition, walking the deserted grounds almost felt like something out of Lovecraft.
In search of clues, I came around the side of the building…
…where ivy was slowly increasing its stranglehold on the facade:
A rusted old fence at the top of a crumbling staircase:
The rear of the building revealed a number of additions…
…and a great view of the building’s impressive cupola…
But what was it??
As it turns out, a pretty big clue was staring down at me:
After making some phone calls, I learned that this was once the German Masonic Home of Tappan, a place for “worthy decayed Masons, their widows, and orphans” – in other words, a home for members who could no longer care for themselves. Below, a photograph taken February 8, 1920:
Incredibly, the building has barely changed over the years. The German Masonic group continues to this day in Tappan, and a member graciously arranged for me to take a tour.
The land for the site, 20 acres in all, was purchased by the German Masons in 1872 for $14,500; construction on the Hall began in 1906 and finished in 1909. From then until 1983, the building was a residence hall for Masons and their kin in an attempt to “shield the individual against the blasts of an adverse fate,” according to a Masonic historian.
Though I was expecting some level of dilapidation, I had no idea how bad the decay would be.
Abandoned since 1996, water damage had taken its toll, and I began to wonder if anything of note had managed to survive.
Then we took a turn through a glass-paned door…
…and found this on the other side:
This is the Home’s former chapel, and I found the mix of elegant design with decay to create an almost haunting beauty.
The chapel actually has an interesting connection to film history. A later addition to the building, the chapel was donated by member Anton T. Kliegl, inventor of the Klieg light, which quickly became the standard of screen and stage.
The real treasure here are the stained glass windows, which are miraculously in perfect condition:
They’ve since been boarded up for safety, and will hopefully be removed soon for preservation…
…but seriously: wow.
I don’t know my Masonic history, but I imagine these scenes were chosen for a reason – perhaps someone out there could illuminate?
At the front wall, two pictures are embedded in the stained glass.
The man is identified as Brother A. T. Kliegl…
The woman is his wife, Schw. L. Kliegl (thanks to readers for clarifying!). Both share the date of April 8, 1928 – anyone have any idea why?
Two windows in the chapel’s corner:
A stained glass skylight used to adorn the chapel’s dome but has since been removed for safe keeping:
Three chairs on the altar:
I noticed the pinnacle of each chair is different. According to reader Mark, “The chairs are for the 3 main positions in the lodge. The center chair is for the Worshipful Master, to the right is the Chaplin, and to the left is the education officer.”
From the debris covered pews…
…to the moss-strewn floors, I have to admit, that Lovecraftian feeling was only increasing.
As we left the chapel, I noticed another window…
…which looked especially impressive in the dark.
From there, we made our way to the main staircase…
…adorned with a Masonic mosaic set into the wall:
Just around the corner were the remnants of a formal room…
…the Masonic symbol still above the fireplace:
In 1983, the Home closed and residents were moved to another facility provided by the German Masons in New Rochelle. The building was leased as a dorm to Dominican College, a local liberal arts college. Below, the former dining hall/ballroom. Note the arched doors on the right:
Just off the dining hall is the old cafeteria/kitchen, in a terrible state of disrepair:
At some point, a medical wing was added to the rear of the first floor.
This was probably an examination room:
The original sink:
Next door, the old nurse’s station…
Long since faded, the slight pink color makes me think this was once a vibrant pastel hue:
A photograph above the sink – quick, who can identify the location?
A private sick room, complete with bed:
An old General Electric water fountain:
From there, we headed upstairs to the second floor…
…er, probably wisely deciding to forego the elevator:
This was the first of three residential floors for the Masonic Home, where members were able to live free of charge.
Here, the decay was at its worst…
…and, coupled with the utter silence of the building, that horror movie feel was reaching a peak.
In fact…OK, I’ll come clean – I had one really embarrassing scare during the tour. As we were looking in this bedroom, SOMETHING SUDDENLY JUMPED OUT AT US…
Pigeons. Dammit, I nearly had a heart attack!
Interestingly enough, there is a tragic story from the building’s past that could easily fuel a ghost legend or two. As I was doing research, I came across this article from from the September 5, 1933, edition of the NY Times:
According to the article, John Ellich, 74, and Marie Kiefer, 64, both residents of the Masonic Home, had secretly fallen in love despite strict rules against such intimacy. A year later, they snuck off to New York City to elope.
Unfortunately, their secret was discovered, and they were informed by the board of directors that they were to be separated, with one of them being moved to the Masonic Home of Utica.
On September 3rd, 1933, at 8 AM, the superintendent found Ellich’s room locked and, upon opening it with a passkey, empty. Kiefer’s door was also found to be locked, with paper stuffed in the keyhole.
Inside, Ellich and Kiefer were found dead, lying side by side. Ellich still held an automatic pistol, and suicide notes were found on the dresser. According to the Times, “It is believed they took advantage of the noise of last night’s electrical storm when the pistol was fired, because none of the other guests heard the shots.”
I’d love to know if the story was known to the Dominican College students who dormed here…
…though I’m sure their super cool spaceship mattresses made them feel safe as they slept at night:
In retrospect, the service provided by the German Masonic Hall seems almost unbelievable in today’s age – a full care retirement residence for those simply in need. In fact, a final resting place was also provided for members at the local cemetery…
…where a group plot was instituted:
Burials span over 50 years, the most recent in 1987:
Sadly, it doesn’t look like much can be done to save the German Masonic Home. While the exterior masonry is in great shape, the roof is falling in, and the interior would need to be completely gutted.
For a time, the Masons had hoped to tear the building down and build smaller homes on the land for seniors in an attempt to fulfill their original mission, but were prohibited by zoning laws.
And so it sits on its hill, decaying a little further each day.
When you literally can’t build ’em like this anymore, it’s sad when you can’t find a purpose for the ones that remain.
On a positive note, much of the Home’s land has become the German Masonic Park, and is used frequently by the town for events and sports.
PS – If it’s not clear from my pictures, the building is INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS and boarded up for a reason!! There is also no trespassing on the grounds. Tappan is very small, and the police take notice.
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