The former Scottish Rite Center has a long and interesting history. The story began in 1924, with construction of the Mizpah Shrine Temple. The idea was to provide northeast Indiana with a much-needed community center, which could host speakers and theatrical productions and provide banquet facilities.
Guy Mahurin, a well-known local architect and Shriner, was chosen for the project, with Max Irmscher & Sons as contractor. Construction began in April 1924 with 200 workers, primarily local. Excavation of the ballroom required two steam shovels and took six weeks to complete. More than 350,000 bricks were used in the construction, with hundreds of barrels of cement mixed with gravel and water. At the time of its construction, the building was said to be the most fireproof structure in Fort Wayne.
The building’s façade was intended to give “…an atmosphere of the orient and yet give it a logical setting in the midst of a modern American city.” The interior also featured “Moorish decoration…with subdued oriental colors, thick, soft carpet, and comfort-giving chairs.” Construction costs exceeded one million dollars.
The Mizpah Shrine celebrated its grand opening with a ceremonial ball on Nov. 18, 1925. That weekend, the first public event was a performance of “Aida” by the Chicago Grand Opera Company. After the grand opening weekend, many premier events followed, including the “Ziegfeld Follies” with Fannie Bryce and Eve Arden; the play “Sex,” starring Mae West; Ethel Barrymore in “Scarlet Sister Mary” and “The Love Duel”; “George White’s ‘Scandals’”; and the “Earl Carroll Vanities.”
During the Great Depression, in 1937, the Mizpah Shrine lost the temple into receivership, retaining only the property east of the Scottish Rite Center. Kaplan Realty bought the Auditorium for $52,500, and the city continued to use it as a home for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and other civic events. Kaplan Realty was losing money on the building, though, and proposed tearing out the main-floor seats and turning the space into a bowling alley. Thanks to the intervention of the city’s mayor and local music groups, the plan failed. However, the facility did see some interesting uses in the 1930s and ’40s, with Army recruiting offices being housed there, and the Ballroom used as an indoor golf course.
After World War II, the Auditorium was leased in 1945 for a 20-year period by the Quimby Theater chain, which operated Fort Wayne’s Paramount, Palace, Jefferson and Emboyd (now Embassy) theaters. The Shrine Auditorium was renamed the Quimby Auditorium, with many well-known productions and performers brought to the stage. The Quimbys also used the Auditorium to show popular movies of the day.
For a time, it was rumored that the Quimbys would no longer use the Auditorium for stage productions and musical performances but operate it only as a movie theater. Local citizens voiced opposition, thus ensuring that Quimby Auditorium remained available to community arts programs. The Shrine Circus called the Auditorium home until the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum was built in 1952, and the Valencia Ballroom continued to be used as a banquet and dance hall. The Ballroom not only welcomed some of the nation’s name bands but also gave a start to local bands — including “The Bel-Aires” in 1950, according to original band member Clifton Humphrey.
The Scottish Rite bought the Auditorium and Ballroom from KMK Realty Co. in 1953 and also purchased the remainder of the Quimby lease. After the Scottish Rite moved to the facility at 431 W. Berry St., the original Scottish Rite Cathedral at Washington and Clinton streets was torn down over a 10-year period. A major renovation of the Scottish Rite Center, including the installation of a Wurlitzer concert organ, took place in 1958.
The Scottish Rite used the center for their Masonic events and made the Auditorium available to the community for various organizations’ use. Local sorority Psi Iota Xi was one of the many groups helping to bring stage productions with nationally known celebrities to the Auditorium in the 1960s and ’70s.
A large structure was added to the facility at the corner of Berry and Fairfield in 1963 and was called the Scottish Rite Cathedral. The name “Cathedral” was later dropped and the structure was used to house administrative offices, the Gentlemen’s Lounge, the Lodge room, Dining Room and the Learning Center for children with dyslexia.
In the 1970s, the popularity of the Scottish Rite Auditorium and Ballroom as a community center began to wane, with fewer and fewer events held in the facility in the 1980s and ’90s. In the late 1990s, Scottish Rite leaders undertook a multimillion-dollar renovation to restore and update the facility, and the center once again began hosting a variety of events.
Now, in 2012, with the former Scottish Rite Center purchased by the University of Saint Francis, the historic facility begins a new chapter in its existence — as the USF Performing Arts Center.