Inside the Tripoli Shrine Center
Not much has changed at the Tripoli Shrine Center since it’s completion in 1928. The Mosque-inspired architecture (officially known as a Moorish Revival style) was built by mason shriners in homage to the Taj Mahal. The 169-year-old fraternal order in Milwaukee that originally constructed the building still uses it as its headquarters. At one time the membership was more than 9,000 across the region. Now the roster is around 1,400 members, according to past Potentate and current Recorder James Christie.
These days, many of the building’s rooms are open to outside purposes as regular citizens look to rent a meeting space or bar mitzvah hall. Christie took me on a full tour of the building as we talked about the Shrine Center’s past history and current use. First we paused in the Grand Foyer underneath the building’s impressive dome, where the Christmas tree was still up.
The Tripoli Shrine Center, at 3000 W. Wisconsin Ave., (formerly known as the Tripoli Mosque or Temple, although worship does not happen there) has been on my bucket list of places to visit for years. My impression was that it was a private venue. During Doors Open Milwaukee, I wondered why it was not on the list of buildings available to tour.
It was a surprise, then, to discover they had a booth at the recent World of Weddings at State Fair Park. As the story goes, about ten years ago, the order realized it could not sustain upkeep and maintenance on such a building through membership dues alone and opened the Center to outsiders for ceremonies, dances and other special events. When asked about their lack of inclusion at Doors Open, the representative at the booth said, “I don’t think they were ever asked.”
It is perhaps the forbidding and unknown nature of the place that has created this false sense and lack of inclusion as a downtown destination or event location. Sandwiched between two churches, a passing motorist may think it is as a temple. The group’s presence on the web is minimal. Stone camels guard the front entrance on some very long steps. The sign for the parking lot indicates “members only.” In recent times, perhaps given the building’s western location, many events happen because somebody’s relative is a member or it serves an evolving neighborhood’s needs for quinceañeras and class reunions.
Concessions have been made over time: a downstairs Ladies Lounge was expanded to accomodate bridal parties, a kitchen was added to the enormous Humphrey Hall so they could provide their own catering, and the basement was divided up into storage and work spaces for the Shriners’ 26 different “units” — which can include anything from the Photo Corps darkroom to the Highlander bagpipers to the block-long bicycle built for 36 men in a unit called “Long Riders.”
During my unique look at the place from top to bottom, I got to see the stately billiards room, the Divan boardroom and Crows’ Nest, the Oasis Room, Melham Parlor, the Scimitar and Egyptian party rooms, and almost everything in between.
Along the way, Christie showed me various details and shared stories, like where one Italian family laid out the colorful tile for the main staircase entirely by hand. He showed me the private bar and changing room where masons fresh from a job site would shower and change into gentlemanly duds before meetings. There were many hallways with ancient photos of members sporting their fez and smiling for the camera. Underneath some photos was often a recognizable name from Milwaukee’s commercial and charitable history. I was enamored with even the smallest of things, like a sign in the Egyptian Room: “Use Only The Language of a Noble” (in other words, no cussing).
Locally, the order members have done a great deal for charity, most notably funding the Shriner Hospitals for underserved children. They make much of this money at the annual Shriner Circus (Feb. 23-26 at the U.S. Cellular Arena) and through smaller fundraisers. They also hold open events for the community like Mardi Gras, DeMolay youth prom, the Potentate’s Ball, the Red Fez Pancake Breakfast, Sportsman’s Night, and even a fashion show. Through smaller community chapters, they do even better for their investment funds and charities with events like the first Ice Fishing Jamboree in Muskego this weekend.
The Tripoli Shrine Center bills itself as “one of Milwaukee’s best kept secrets both in our building and our approach to servicing your special day,” but the six grand rooms open to the public could benefit from a bigger spotlight and modern revival.
Please stroll through the historic building with me in this photographic slideshow, or visit our Flickr account site for the whole set.