Camels And Minarets In Milwaukee: What's The Story Behind That Tripoli Shrine?

Nov 18, 2016

Nestled between Miller Brewery and Harley Davidson on the west and Marquette University on the east, Milwaukee's near west side neighborhood is dotted with mansions and other historic spots from the 1800s and 1900s.

There's the Pabst Mansion, completed in 1892 to house the family of Milwaukee's famed beer barons; the Ambassador Hotel, an art deco retreat built in the 1920s and the Irish Cultural Center, which is housed in what was originally the Grand Avenue Congregational Church built in 1887. 

But even in a sea of stately structures, one building really does look different from the rest.

Looking at its exotic dome and minarets, two stone camels flanking the entrance and intricate gold and blue etchings, Steve Baldwin of Milwaukee asked WUWM's Bubbler Talk: What’s up with the Tripoli Shrine on Wisconsin Avenue?

Baldwin had done a little research on his own and knew it was a social building, but he wanted to know about the people who built it.

One of two camels lining the entrance of the Tripoli Shrine.
Credit Maayan Silver

"Nowadays we build office buildings and kind of drab other buildings," Baldwin says. "And this is so different, it’s a social building, huge, on the scale of a library... why?"

To find out we turned to Jim Christie, who is connected with the Shrine. "The Shrine is kind of the playground of freemasonry," he explains. "Freemasonry is the oldest and the largest fraternity in the world. It grew out of the operative Masonic trade. Men who worked out of cement and stone."

The lobby of the main entrance of the Tripoli Shrine.
Credit Maayan Silver

In the 1800s and 1900s in the United States, freemasonry developed into a social organization, beyond cement and stonecutting. Members met in lodges and obtained degrees in its teachings. In 1870, as legend goes, a few freemasons went to a party in France thrown by an Arab diplomat. They became enamored with the Arabic theme, and decided to start an offshoot branch: The Ancient Arabic Order of the Mystic Shrine, known as Shriners. The first shrine was chartered in New York City in 1872.

"Part of the function of these fraternal organizations was business networking," historian Jim Draeger explains.

"The Shriner's Temple was sort of the LinkedIn of the early twentieth century." - Jim Draeger

A view of the dome and its chandelier from the second floor of the building.
Credit Maayan Silver

In that era, Milwaukee’s Shriners were meeting in various places around the city. They finally hatched a plan to build Tripoli.

"In 1925, [the Shriners] said, 'We need a place of our own,'" Christie says. "So they appointed a building committee, several prominent businessmen from the area. They looked and they found this [3.5 acre] piece of property. It contained a mansion and two carriage houses."

A close up of the domed ceiling.
Credit Maayan Silver

"They tore down those pieces of property, hired an architect, and they said they’d like it to look like the Taj Mahal," he explains." They broke ground in the fall of 1925, and they moved in in May 1928. At that time Tripoli Shrine had 6,000 members."

Christie points out that he's visited many shrine centers around the county, and Milwaukee's is the only one that looks like this.

Mimicking the Taj Mahal actually makes sense to State Historic Preservation Officer Jim Draeger, of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

"I've been to many shrine centers around the country, and this is the only one that looks like this."

"People were looking for architectural inspiration in the early twentieth Century," he details, "the world being more open as a result of increased travel...The building was inspired somewhat by the Taj Mahal, but not really a replica of the Taj Mahal."

People commonly think that the building is a mosque when they first see it, but Christie says that the Shriners are not a religious organization. "The only connection is that to be a freemason you must profess a belief and a reliance upon a supreme being," he says.

An upstairs view of the chandelier.
Credit Maayan Silver

These days, membership isn't as booming as back in the twenties, so the Shriners are getting creative.

"We’ve been renting the hall for weddings, for quinceañeras, and are renting different parts of the building for business meetings, we’re available for all kinds of events," says Christie. "We are more open about who we are today."

He adds that the shrine had over 2,300 visitors in two day during this year's Doors Open Milwaukee.

Question asker Steven Baldwin looks up at the intricate paintings of green, orange and gold leaf in the domed ceiling of the inner lobby that goes 64 feet high.

"I can’t imagine anything more ornate than this, it’s just beautiful," he says.

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