Masonic Temple is coming down
By JESSICA DURKIN
August 4, 2005
The Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism Wednesday unanimously granted the tribe's request to tear down the building. The decision ends a more than 100-year-old battle by the tribe to preserve and restore the land.
Tantaquidgeon Zobel said the tribe has begun soliciting bids and hopes to demolish the 77-year-old building by the end of this year.
Long time coming
"It's a sigh of relief," she said. "This is a project that has been in the works literally centuries. The folks I took with us as a team felt very responsible for fulfilling the wishes of our ancestors."
The Mohegans have informally offered up to $1 million to the city to compensate for the revenue lost from development on the Masonic Temple site, Mayor Arthur Lathrop said. The exact stipend and the amount have not been determined yet, he said.
The tribe had tried to keep the site undeveloped since the last tribal burial there in 1876. After unsuccessful tribal lawsuits in the 1890s and 1930s to spare the 3.41-acre property from development, the tribe purchased the land from the City of Norwich in 1999 for slightly more than $1 million. They planned to turn the temple into an Indian museum, technology center and performing arts theater.
Excavation for the utilities was halted because it would have disturbed Indian graves on the site, however. The land is currently assessed at $1.5 million.
Tantaquidgeon Zobel, who is executive director of the tribe's department of historical preservation, and a group that included a lawyer, an archivist and an archeologist, presented their findings on the site to the Commission. The tribe has also collaborated with the State Historic Preservation Office.
The Mohegans first laid out plans to raze the building in November 2003. But they needed to present detailed information about the site's history to the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism -- formerly the Commission on Historic Preservation.
Paul Loether, the deputy state historic preservation officer, said the decision was tough because the burial ground and the temple have impressive historic significance.
"It's almost a question of which of the two children are you going to save?" Loether said. "The council was faced with deciding which of the resources would be most impacted."
Loether said the commission realized there was no way to make the temple viable again without disturbing the underground graves, so they voted unanimously in favor of the Mohegan's plan.
The Mohegans will create a "memory pile," an Indian architectural rock formation, at the building's footprint, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. The tribe also hopes to get the property placed on the list of World Heritage Sites.
Mohegan Chief Uncas is buried somewhere on the site, although the exact location is unknown. All Mohegan descendants had the option of being buried there in 1876 after the tribe's reservation ended in 1870.
The tribe intends to repatriate some excavated Mohegan remains, but it would not disclose how many will be returned. Other graves behind the Masonic building were left intact and marked by the state.
"We usually don't like to discuss bodies and numbers," Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. "Let's just say we have a small room with remains and associated funerary objects."
The four-story brick building has been a fixture at Washington and Sachem streets, across from Norwich Free Academy, since 1928. The city bought the land from the Masons in 1995, and it has mostly stood unused.