Prahran Masonic Centre - Is the State Government killing our buildings?

From WBro Damien, Editor Devotion News, Booking Manager Ringwood and Collingwood Masonic Centres

Above, panoramic photograph of the upper cavernous and historic Prahran Masonic Lodge Room

Article update Nov 2021. (Freemasonry is an apolitical organisation and the author of this article has little interest in politics. See our site disclaimer). In late 2019, the above lodge room was demolished to make the space lettable to external users to help meet the buildings Land Tax Burden. In 2020, the State Government abolished Land Tax for Incorporated Associations and other similar groups. We were all so grateful. Volunteers all over the state from many diverse community organizations relieved a sigh of relief knowing they can now spend more time helping the community rather than fundraising to meet Land Tax. I have spent hundreds of hours each year for decades in my spare time to raise the money to meet our Land Tax Bill. I know how important the space we provide for ourselves and the wider community is. In 2021, the media reported that the very wealthy Melbourne Club would benefit from changes to Land Tax and it was claimed that the decision on Land Tax was benefiting the wealthy Melbourne Club and should be reversed. It was later claimed that the female Lyceum and Alexandra Clubs in the city would also be effected. While these three organisations might make the media (and I know nothing of their actual financial and land tax status), there are hundreds of properties all over the state owned and occupied by community groups which provide a "third place" other than home and work for people to meet. They are diverse and offer a "Third Place" to very varied people - including many in the most "humble" of circumstances. These groups are keeping people alive and well. They are important to the health of our society and well being of many diverse individuals. Their meeting places are under threat for Legislation currently passing through parliament. That legislation focuses on taxing single sex community groups (the CWA and Men's Sheds will be except we are told). After almost 2 years of COVID-19 shutdown and close to no income of our self-funded community groups, 2022-23 is looking like a very bleak year if they are again hit with land tax. What is worse, the club rate will be abolished. This might give an injection to the states tax coffers, but it will be short term and likely see many volunteers finally give up their community work - that will damage our society. It will make my task of keeping our community venue open very difficult, perhaps almost impossible. Closing community venues under pressure of land tax is likely to mean life and death outcomes for some of the people I have helped.

Our 2017 Installation was held at the Prahran Masonic Centre. Located in the middle of a trendy inner city suburb known for shopping and entertainment strips such as Chapel and Greville Streets, Prahran has long been a place to go & a place to be seen. So is it with Freemasons; many lodges now use the building and, once Sandringham closes in December 2017, Prahran Masonic Centre is likely to be one of the largest lodge rooms left and still used in Victoria after the earlier demise of the Dallas Brooks Centre in 2015.

We have seen many Masonic buildings being sold off by their owners. More than falling numbers of Freemasons, the cause is often a poor outcome to the equation; income minus expenses = surplus, with the falling income and surpluses not being able to meet rising expenses. I’ve long been an advocate of focusing on increasing income from external users rather than from the falling number of Lodges which generally inhabit such buildings, but cast your eye over the expenses of such a building and putting large maintenance projects aside, there is one item which is putting a huge pressure on the continuation of most urban Masonic Centres; it’s tax.

The Victorian Land Tax Act 1877 was designed to break up large holdings of land and make it available for wider use. The Land Tax Act 1910 saw a tax on the unimproved value of land introduced and its been with us ever since. Readers might remember the media covering the businesses which closed around 2008 with the removal of the limit of 50% to the increase of Land Tax bills; it can be a tax which is hard to meet if your use is not maximizing income.

As the price of property in Melbourne continues to rise, looking forward, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to see more of our historic buildings will fall victim to land tax. Certainly, relief from it would see a sizable amount of funds freed to maintain and improve our centres, not just for Freemasons, but also the other communities to whom many of us open our doors to. Lack of maintenance of our buildings has long been an issue, but such maintenance can only take place once this tax is paid. For many, paying Land Tax is in itself a struggle. No doubt, given its size and location, Prahran Masonic Centre’s bill would be expected to be astronomical.

Masonic Wardens Chairs at Prahran

Senior Warden's Chair at the PMC

Junior Warden's Chair at the PMC

Section 73 of the Land Tax Act 2005 allows concessional tax rate of 0.375% for club land held by a Not for Profit for several purposes, including “social, cultural, (and) recreational”. This does not offer an exemption, as enjoyed by friendly societies, charities, outdoor recreation, churches and farmers (etc), however I would expect many Masonic Centres would be paying according to the provisions of Section 73. I’ve just read the Act for the first time, and I note Section 95 (1) established a Land Tax Hardship Relief Board. Perhaps that’s something to keep in mind and something to ask about? Certainly a NFP holding entity (I prefer an Association) is essential to managing a Land Tax bill.

Land Tax Rates in 2017

(No longer current)

Lodge rent of $300 per meeting is regarded by many as expensive. However for a building value at $4 million, five lodges meeting 11 times a year at $290 per meeting will see a surplus of $954 per year after paying land tax. Not much to meet other taxes such as Council Rates, Fire Levies and the like, that’s before we start putting some paint on the wall or get a plumber in to clear a blocked drain - and assumes each of those lodges is not another Order meeting only five times a year in Odd or Even months.

This math explains one of the great drivers of Lodges into new high rise buildings with fixed commercial tenancies – and the death of historic Centres. Land Tax is designed to see land exploited for its highest use, yet this is not possible when we allow a historic low rise Masonic Centre to stand. Unless we start to do something about it, Land Tax might see many centres, including our own at Gipps Street, doomed. Some, like Emulation Hall in Canterbury have been saved by new owners who describe that building as a “grand and exotic building…a valuable piece of Victoria’s history.” Although the Lodge room has been stripped, much of the fabric remains – including the fascinating and distinctive facade which has been lovingly restored by enlightened owners with an appreciation for heritage architecture that many Freemasons seem to lack. In a Herald Sun article, heritage architect Nigel Lewis described Canterbury Masonic Centre as “.. a rare Victorian example of the Egyptian Revival style and freemasonry’s link to ancient Egypt.” “It reflects both the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 and the return of Australian soldiers from World War 1 with Egyptian objects displaying such motifs as the scarab and winged disc…”. Of course, think of the building’s profit and loss, a decade of land tax relief would go a long way to contributing to the renovation the now sold Emulation Hall. While at least we can be grateful the building still stands and its exterior has been restored, in our hands, the historic interior would not have been lost.

Prahran Masonic Centre - side elevation

The Prahran Masonic Temple, Land Tax casts a dark shadow on the future of such buildings

Land Tax and significant land prices are a material factor in why not a single Masonic Building is still operating within the City of Boroondara. Price creep and corresponding land tax rise is likely to hit more centres in the coming decades, with Kew, Canterbury, Camberwell, Box Hill and Blackburn all consolidated into a more viable high rise office block in Box Hill. We’ve moved out of the City of Boroodara to Whitehorse, but if you’ve noticed the land prices in Box Hill recently, this problem will follow us long into the future and further and further out into the suburbs. For us, the commercial value of a Masonic Centre has no utility to the lodges meeting in it, indeed it becomes a burden as it rises and so does our land tax bill. More than investments, our buildings stand as part of a long cultural heritage and the explicit goal of a Committee of Management like that of Collingwood Masonic Centre is never to see it sold. The value of the property is irrelevant, until the Land Tax bill arrives.

Freemasonry is an apolitical organization, yet perhaps we need to start approaching government, less rising tax bills sees the death of more historic buildings like those in Prahran and Collingwood ?

The list of buildings in Melbourne which have already succumbed to the lesser number of Freemasons unable to meet expenses and the rise of their buildings expenses, particularly land tax, is already too long. Further, even a building like Collingwood Masonic Centre with its external hirers, or Prahran with its commercial tenancies will eventually fall victim to land tax – a tax designed to pressure owners into the highest use of land – something incompatible with preserving the fabric of historic buildings and historic lodge rooms.

Owners of Masonic Buildings need to check they are receiving a Land Tax Bill in accordance to Section 73 of the Land Tax Act 2005, however more than that, rather than letting more buildings slowly being strangled by Tax, perhaps it’s time we see if there is any opportunities to see our Tax burden reduced or removed ?

(Disclaimer - the writer is not legally qualified nor an accountant. Parties need to make their own investigations and the above is not to be construed and commercial or legal advice).

Prahran Masonic Temple was completed in 1924 at the cost of about £15,000. The money was raised by subscription to the The United Southern Masonic Hall PTY LTD. There were ten directors which included RWBro H Blashki. The architect was Bro G F Gibbons. The first Lodge to meet in the new building was South Yarra Lodge, as reported in the Prahran Telegraph on 17 October 1924 with The Argus reporting on 26 August 1924 the building was “approaching completion” and the Hall Company being formed by City of Prahran, South Yarra, Windsor and Hawksburn Lodges.

Ceiling Mural in the dining room