Freemasons Temple Downtown To Become Nolaluna Circus Theater

February 15, 2016


New Orleans Freemasons moved to the suburbs this summer after more than a century downtown and left behind a 162-year-old ceremonial temple. The 19th-century structure sits in the middle of a construction boom of new apartments and hotels.

Now, developers Stanley Morris and Charles Trapolin are peeling back layers of secret history in the Scottish Rite Temple at 619 Carondelet St. with a modern vision for the 1853 building. It will be home to Nolaluna, a new theater and dining venue featuring European-style circus artists, musicians, singers, comedians and variety acts. 

"This will become a local venue that people cherish and love and get to do exciting nights out like nothing they could get anywhere," said Morris, Nolaluna co-producer and managing partner.

Real estate developers have pumped billions into downtown, largely driven by historic renovations of old office towers into apartments and hotels. But a new use for the comparatively squat, early Greek revival temple didn't fall so clearly into the trends.

The Freemasons' dining hall and amphitheater came onto the market just as Morris and Trapolin were looking for a theater. The old temple, it turned out, could be perfect for a cabaret-style dinner theater featuring swinging trapeze artists and other big performances.

The $8 million renovation is being financed through state and federal historic tax credits, the state musical and theatrical production tax credit and private equity. Nolaluna signed a 34-year lease on the property, which was bought from the Freemasons in July by local developer Craig Boes for $3.25 million.

Morris said it will take 125 full-time employees to run the venue, including the restaurant, sales and marketing, production and musicians. "It's a very complex business model, that's why not just anybody is doing it," he said.

The Temple Bar downstairs will have a 125-seat Italian restaurant and bar with an in-house musician trio. The chef has yet to be announced. In the Nolaluna venue upstairs, three-hour ticketed events will incorporate a four-course dinner and performances. It is slated to open November 2016.

Morris and Trapolin were partners in a popular circus theater on San Francisco's waterfront, called Teatro ZinZanni, before the theater lost its lease with dozens of other tenants for the America's Cup sailboat race. Morris said San Francisco and New Orleans have something big in common: tourism as an economic driver.

"Local people always are the ones that tell the visitors where to go," Morris said. "In San Francisco, most of our ticket sales were within San Francisco, year in and year out, for 12 years. Visitors come because it becomes known as the place where the local people come to, and I believe it will be the same thing here."

The renovation is being designed by local architecture firm Trapolin-Peer, the firm of Trapolin's brother. After the San Francisco business closed down, Trapolin, a former professional dancer, said he and Morris considered what to do next. "The most fun, the most creatively rewarding, the most financially rewarding was doing this cirque cabaret," Trapolin said.

They looked for a space in New Orleans for two years. They considered moving into the State Palace Theater or building a theater on the Mississippi River waterfront off Tchoupitoulas Street. They have hired Gypsy Snider, co-founder of an internationally touring circus collective in Montreal called "7 doigts," to be the director. Snider co-choreographed the Tony award-winning Broadway musical "Pippin."

Morris said the Freemasons produced their own lavish shows in the temple for decades. But even so, the property was never zoned for a theater with the city, and the developers had to get city approval to develop Nolaluna.

The lodge left behind several century-old hand-painted backdrops on an old pulley system on stage, including a peaceful lake with a swan and a red hellscape with devils. Morris and Trapolin plan to incorporate the paintings into their shows.

The project entails modernizing all of the basic infrastructure. They're dealing with an expert from Las Vegas who has worked on rigging for Cirque de Soleil shows to make it suitable for trapeze and other hanging performances. They are also restoring the building's original elements, such as bringing back cast iron beams covered in 1970s-style mirror paneling and marbling. 

The building was constructed in 1853 by the Methodist Episcopal Church South, when the Methodist Church split over the issue of slavery. The Freemasons bought the church in 1905 and renovated it with the help of local architect Sam Stone in 1910. A stained glass window marked with "Grand Consistory of Louisiana 32 Degree" was installed in place of the front door. That year, as many as 40,000 people attended a Shriner's Convention in New Orleans, and the group's Imperial Council met at the temple. 

A century later, Nolaluna is taking shape just as the downtown neighborhood surrounding the building is swiftly morphing. It sits near the $250 million South Market District development of apartments, condos, and retail. Across the street, South Market's developer The Domain Cos. is renovating an office building into an Ace hotel. 

At Nolaluna, Morris said they plan to have a landscaped sidewalk dining area to capture the new downtown feel. "This is going to be a whole new neighborhood in another six months," Morris said.

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