Prior to the construction of the Grand Lodge of Texas, a freemason-affiliated organization known as the Karem Shriners built the grandiose Karem Shrine Temple at Seventh and Washington. Substantial in size and embellished with Masonic emblems, the building drew in Shriners across Texas and around the country.
The Shriners, or the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, originated in New York in the late nineteenth century. The founders, Walter M. Fleming and William J. Florence, sought to form a fraternal organization complete with social activities and philanthropic opportunities for freemasons. Though freemason membership did not require involvement with the Shrine, only members of the Scottish Rite or York Rite who had reached Master Mason status could become Shriners. The order grew rapidly at the turn of the century, boasting 55,000 national members by 1900.
In January 1919, freemasons in Waco established a local Shriner order. Locals W.A. Parker, N.D. Naman, A.J. Dossett, and W.F. Quebe met with Shriners in Dallas as they endeavored to grow the new Karem Shrine from its original one hundred members. To gain a formal charter, the Karem Shriners acquired six hundred signatures from supporters across the community. Upon reaching the necessary requirements for the charter, the organization hosted a celebratory ceremony on July 4, where hundreds more expressed interest in membership.
By April 1920, the Shriners had named the Divian, or the leaders, of the Karem Shrine organization and reached over one thousand members. Within the order, branches for the patrol and band formed. At many galas, dinners, and other social gatherings, the Karem Shrine band provided entertainment. Locations such as the prominent downtown Raleigh Hotel hosted Shriner ceremonies and dances where the Shriners’ notable regalia, which included a fez, often appeared.
In addition to social events, Shriners conducted extensive charity work. Initially, Shrine orders provided aid to children with polio but expanded their philanthropic efforts to include children with spinal cord injuries as well as pediatric burn victims. By 1927, the Karem Shrine organization had donated over $25,000 to pediatric hospitals and continued their fundraising efforts through local drives to support the Shrine Hospital in Houston. They also regularly hosted Karem Shrine Circuses and Carnivals and partnered with community organizations, such as the Salvation Army, to provide shoes and other necessities to children in need.
From the time of its establishment throughout the 1920s, the Karem Shrine met in the Grand Lodge of Texas at Eighth and Columbus. As the local order continued to grow, the Shriners decided to construct their own building. They hoped to create a space that would attract freemasons from across the United States and result in further growth of Shriner membership. In 1927, Dallas architects Greene, LaRoche, and Dahl created architectural plans for the new Karem Shrine Temple building on Seventh and Washington, and Wacoan Roy Ellsworth Lane worked as associate architect. Waco’s J.S. Harrison Construction Company planned to begin construction in November 1927.
The quarter of a million-dollar project, over four million dollars today, consisted of three stories and a basement. The ground floor contained several stores and areas available for local businesses and organizations to rent. The second floor held a dining room with a 150-person capacity and large kitchen as well as game rooms for pool and billiards, offices for Shrine officials, and meeting spaces for the patrol and band. The third floor comprised an elaborate dance hall and a rooftop garden that overlooked downtown Waco. The lavish architecture attracted two thousand Shriners from across the state to the building’s dedication day in November 1928. That day, visitors gathered at the ceremony where Texas Senator Tom Connally addressed the audience. The building opened for public viewing on November 30, and the Karem Shriners declared the Temple structure one of the most sophisticated in the Southwest.
The Karem Shriners remained at 701 Washington Avenue until they relocated in 1995. At that time, McLennan County officials purchased the structure, and the organization’s headquarters moved to the outskirts of Waco on North River Crossing. Though the county utilized office space in the building, it remained mostly vacant—other than the remaining scimitars, double eagles, and Masonic symbols featured on the ground level.
In 2018, the county placed the building for sale through Peevey Real Estate Company. Buyers from across the country expressed interest in the historic building, but local renovators Chip and Joanna Gaines acquired the structure through Magnolia Vacation Rentals. The Fixer Upper stars have plans to develop the building into a boutique hotel called Hotel 1928 by Fall 2023.