Toronto Star Oct 18 2017, WINNIPEG—“This is going to get very freaky,” says Frank Albo, grinning, as he walks backwards into the foyer of the Manitoba Legislature. We follow him past the security desk to a massive staircase flanked by a pair of giant bronze bison, an emblem for the prairie province. Except these bison towering over us represent protective, horned beasts guarding the entrance to a temple.
“The building is an encyclopedia of sacred knowledge,” says Albo in his blue ball cap, hoodie and white sneakers. The Manitoba Legislature was designed by a Freemason architect who, Albo asserts, merrily reconstructed King Solomon’s Temple in the heart of Winnipeg in 1920. While that may sound cultish, the intent was less creepy. Albo maintains that Frank Worthington Simon built a temple’s protective hallway, altar and other features to purify and improve people in the building.
Freemasons are a secretive group that believes geometry was a sacred science given by God to the builder of Solomon’s temple. They started as a guild for stone masons in the Middle Ages and live on as a boy’s social and philanthropy club (and wellspring of endless conspiracy theories). When the Leg was built, a whack of sitting politicians were Freemasons. They either didn’t know or didn’t mind that the Golden Boy on top of the building is actually Hermes, the patron of Freemasons and messenger to the gods, an Ark of the Covenant sits (unopened) on the roof and eight cattle skulls are busy deflecting evil inside the building.
Albo has been studying the Leg since 2001 when, as an undergraduate student taking religion and anthropology, he happened to glance up one day and notice Egyptian sphinx on the roof. The building’s many secrets “hidden in plain sight” inspired Albo’s Masters, and a Cambridge PhD on Freemasonry in British architecture. He joined the Freemasons for a time and co-wrote a book, The Hermetic Code. Albo also nearly fell off the legislature’s roof, showed up in his pyjamas in the middle of the night to check out a hunch and had a grand gab with Prince Charles about the mysteries of Solomon’s Temple.
I’m about the 30,023 person to take the Hermetic Code Tour and maybe the millionth to get a high five from Albo for getting the right answer to a question.
It was an easy one — I shouted out Vitruvius as he stood mimicking Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Others in my group get kudos for knowing the Fibonacci sequence, humming along to the Indiana Jones theme and spotting the Passion of the Christ in the First World War mural above the Legislative Chamber entrance. As we stand behind a rope peering into the Lieutenant-governor’s reception area/Holy of the Holies, Albo mimics Prince Charles and a security guard off to the side shakes his head and chuckles. Whether you’re HRH or hoi polloi, Albo has not lost one iota of enthusiasm for telling people about the building.
“It’s like speaking on behalf of the Mona Lisa,” he says. “That makes it very easy.”
Albo has been giving tours here since 2009 when he was talked into it by a local tour operator. “I told him that this was the most amazing story of Winnipeg that I had ever heard in my 40 years in the business,” says Don Finkbeiner, owner of Heartland International Travel and Tours. “I said that the public needs to hear the story and after some coaxing he agreed to give it a try.”
Heartland, which runs the Hermetic Code tours, has to get permission for each and every one from the Manitoba Legislative Building events coordinator. The Leg, meanwhile, gives its own Freemason-free tours of the building.
Along with tourists and plenty of conspiracy kooks, Albo has toured a Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen (“the royal term for BFF”) who kept “stealing my cliff hangers” as they walked through the building. Her great uncle, yet another Freemason, is said to have attended a ceremony for the Masonic order when the building opened. “Young man,” Albo quotes the Lady in his best posh accent, “There are mysteries to this building you haven’t figured out.” Albo has her number at Buckingham Palace in his phone. “We’re buddies” he says.
The biggest reveal of the 90-minute tour of the “3D 250,000 square foot Sudoku puzzle” is the heart of the temple, a black, eight-pointed star on the marble floor. Albo has us walk the circumference of the room, ominously, and take turns coming into the middle to stand on the Black Star and make a wish. The acoustic marvel of standing directly under the dome (and Hermes directly above on the roof) brings your whisper thundering back at you.
A hundred years ago, the British Freemason who built the Manitoba Leg was less concerned with acoustic party tricks than ensuring everyone left the building feeling “more intelligent, better balanced and all together more civilized.” Not sure whether I’m any smarter and am probably not more civilized, but as I walk out of the Leg into the sunny Winnipeg afternoon, I am definitely thoroughly entertained.