NEW CASTLE, Pa. – Sitting proudly on a hill overlooking New Castle, Pa., is the regal Scottish Rite Cathedral. The landmark building at 110 E. Lincoln Ave. was built nearly a century ago by John S. Wallace, a Masonic official, as a meeting space for all Masonic groups.
More than an auditorium, today the cathedral is akin to a fully functioning museum.
Construction began in 1924 and was completed the following year on the structure, which was designed by architect R.G. Schmidt of Milwaukee.
A parade to celebrate its grand opening was attended by thousands. Businesses shut down for the afternoon and people parked their cars or walked miles on foot to join the party.
Construction of the 2.9 million-square-foot building required 1,400 pounds of steel, two million common bricks and 600,000 face bricks.
During the Great Depression, the Masons were unable to make tax payments, leaving Lawrence County to take ownership.
In 1944, the Cathedral Foundation was formed, which currently owns the building.
“The Cathedral Foundation has been entrusted with preserving the beautiful historic landmark for future generations,” says Dawn Piroli, executive director of The Cathedral Foundation.
Fourteen board members make up the foundation, running the day-to-day activities of the cathedral on an annual budget of $500,000.
The local Masons continue to rent space in the building. To generate revenue, the cathedral is available for rentals. It also accepts donations, grants and legacy planning gifts.
Two cell phone towers sit on top of the nine-and-a-half story structure, which remained open during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow crews access to the towers.
PRESERVED LIKE A MUSEUM
Many of the cathedral’s original features remain in use today. Chandeliers and other light fixtures, and plaster statues and moldings have been preserved for nearly a century.
When something has needed to be cleaned or restored, the Cathedral Foundation has reached out to the Masons, who have donated time, materials and carpentry for upkeep.
Every one of the cathedral’s 6,000 light bulbs were replaced with LEDs over time, says Jim McKim, president of The Cathedral Foundation.
“I’m so happy the building is so well-kept,” McKim says, adding that the Masons have always had a deep appreciation and love for the building.
Running the building on a daily basis is a small staff that includes Piroli, who has directed the foundation for more than 20 years, and Gordon Rees, the full-time maintenance director, who has worked there for 40 years. Rees oversees three part-time maintenance employees.
A group of volunteers also takes pride in the building, Piroli says.
Stage crews are still using the original, vintage lighting control system that similar venues have long since replaced.
“Our stage crew is phenomenal that they can even find parts at this point because it’s original to the building,” Piroli says.
Famous people who have performed at the Scottish Rite Cathedral over the years range from musicians to comedians: Brenda Lee, George Carlin, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire, The Temptations and The Drifters, to name a few.
Three massive chandeliers grace the auditorium.
In front of the stage, in the center of the auditorium, is a 67-rank, player-pipe organ, valued at $1 million, Piroli says.
Piroli, whose office is near the auditorium, says one of her favorite things is hearing the repairman play the instrument after maintenance. “It gives me chills,” she says.
DID YOU SEE THAT?
One ghostly piece of the cathedral’s mystique involves a little boy who seems to “live” on the premises and has been seen by several people.
A small-statured boy was seen as recently as this past spring during a competition by a little girl who ran to McKim and a volunteer, stating the boy could go through walls.
“I’ve never seen him,” McKim says.
“Me either, but I want to,” Piroli adds.
One of the part-time employees says he has seen the boy, twice.
That custodian says he put miniature toy cars in a certain place, and later they were completely rearranged.
The apparition, who doesn’t have a name, just wanders about the building, both McKim and Piroli say.
Adding to the mystery are secret passages throughout the building, McKim says. One of the tunnels leads outside, but it’s blocked so people cannot use it.
Several rooms in the massive building are available to rent for events such as commencements, graduation parties, weddings, receptions, funerals, bereavement dinners, dance competitions and recitals, Masonic functions, and even bingo on Tuesdays. Clients can choose from nine catering companies.
Many annual community events take place at the cathedral. Among these are Mohawk High School’s Veterans Day program, New Castle Bridal Fair, Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce annual dinner, Children’s Dyslexia Center of Western PA craft show, Lawrence County and PA Distinguished Young Women programs, and “Oneness,” an event that promotes inclusivity.
For information on booking a room for an event or for donation opportunities, go to CathedralNewCastle.com, or call Piroli at the Cathedral Foundation at 724 654 6683.
Pictured at top: The Scottish Rite Cathedral in New Castle is used for a variety of events. The structure, built by Masons, is now owned by The Cathedral Foundation.