In 1858, when the the Wamponamon Masonic Lodge No. 437 was established in Sag Harbor, a comet streaked across the sky, the first comet ever to be photographed.
That event is now immortalized in a recently completed mural on the walls of the historic building at 200 Main Street, which, even after the lower floor became the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, remained home, on its upper floor, to the Masons, an organization members describe as “the oldest and most honorable fraternity known to man.”
On a hot day last July, John Capello, an artist and member of the Masonic brotherhood, clambered down from a web of scaffolding to greet Patrick McErlean, the lodge’s head, or Worshipful Master, and a visitor. For more than a month he had been perched high up, painting Masonic symbols and celestial imagery on the walls and domed ceiling over the Masonic temple’s dais, adding colorful new sections to a mural he had originally installed in 2014.
He began the most recent work by painting a small study of his ideas, a work dedicated to a former Wamponamon master, William Miller, which will hang in the lodge.
The color blue dominates, and there is an image of an eye surrounded by a blue triangle, as the Sag Harbor lodge is known as “the blue lodge.” Other symbols painted on the walls include a Shield (or Star) of David, which represents a stage of Masonry through which members progress before becoming a master, and a compass and square, with a “G” for God and Geometry. “To us, God has to be some kind of a mathematician,” Mr. Capello said.
“It’s a visual thing and it tells a story,” the artist said of the mural, which also incorporates anchors, hammers, and chisels. “The seamen, the carpenters, the stonemasons — they all became Masons.”
One goal of the most recent work, which took about two months all told, was “to show the dimension of the universe,” Mr. Capello said. For inspiration, on his painting table next to brushes of all sizes, sketches, and rainbow-colored pots of paint, was an open book of photographs taken by the Hubble telescope — multihued, ethereal images of galaxies, planets, and stars. He painted Jupiter and Uranus into the mural, and constellations, too, including Pegasus the winged horse in iridescent paint.
A self-taught artist and sculptor who works in a variety of mediums and teaches a painting course at Stony Brook Southampton, Mr. Capello has done outdoor murals at locations throughout the New York City boroughs, beginning in the 1970s, when buildings were often covered with graffiti. He would approach their owners with a different idea.
He has learned, he said, to make only a rough sketch before he begins. “I create as I go,” he said. “It’s only paint, so I can change as I go. I usually put in four, maybe five hours a day; half of that is spent looking.”
The inclusion of the comet grew out of a talk with Lou Grignon, Mr. McErlean’s predecessor as lodge master. “He said, let’s find out what was happening in the sky” when the lodge was founded.
“This is my legacy to Sag Harbor,” the artist said.
The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by a prominent 19th-century architect, Minard LeFever, and constructed in 1845 as a residence for Benjamin Huntting II, a leading Sag Harbor citizen and whaling ship owner. Its design includes detailed plaster ceilings, carved wooden doorframes, and ornate Corinthian columns outside. It was purchased, after Huntting’s death in 1867, by Mrs. Russell Sage, a well-known philanthropist who used it as a summer cottage, and was deeded to the historical museum in 1945, according to museum records, with the Masons guaranteed use of the upstairs in perpetuity.
Aside from the new mural, the two sections of which represent almost half a year of Mr. Capello’s work, the interior of the lodge meeting room recently got its first paint job in half a century. With its rich but muted colors and the celestial mural depicting many of the Masons’ esoteric signs and symbols set off by lighting created by another lodge member, which can be set to cast different colors and tones — “like you just have the sun coming up in the morning, to full afternoon, to evening light,” said Mr. Capello — the room seems the perfect setting for Masonic rituals and meetings, where members take on designated roles in set positions, with meaningful accoutrements such as a Bible and symbolic compass and square, also in assigned spaces.
“It’s quite dramatic,” the artist said of the lighting’s effect. “We’re going to be using that in our rituals. I did a lot of this with intense colors because it’s meant to be seen in the dark.”
Meetings include an “exchange of ideas,” Mr. McErlean said, but talk of politics or religion is banned. Membership in the Masons is not exclusive, though initiates must be over age 21. They must believe in and profess duty to God, but the fraternity is open to those of any faith.
The group’s moral teachings center on a commitment to personal growth in body, mind, and spirit, and on service to community and to one’s own religious beliefs, Mr. McErlean explained. The motto of the Freemasons is “Better men make a better world.”
All but three or four of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons.
Sag Harbor Masons provide annual scholarships to Pierson High School graduates, collect winter coats for those in need, visit elderly veterans, and send a camper to a Masonic summer camp upstate each year.
Masons progress through a series of stages, or degrees, through study and participation in lodge rituals and activities; the “secret” parts of the society are its private handshakes, passwords, and similar customs. The symbolic images and allegory of Masonic rituals represent elements of spiritual inquiry and topics for introspection and discussion.
Certain ancient traditions are followed. During initiation rites by candlelight, for instance, inductees are “hoodwinked” and kept in an anteroom, complete with inner and outer doors and a symbolic doorknocker, until being brought into the lodge.
“We do the same things they’ve been doing for 700, 800 years,“ Mr. McErlean said recently while giving a tour of the lodge. “Everything you did to get in here, George Washington did.”
Today’s Masons cannot remember a time when the public has been invited into the lodge, but it is about to happen. A one-shot opportunity for a look at the Masonic Temple inner sanctum, including a chance to view Mr. Capello’s mural and the lodge’s historic artifacts, will occur at an open house on June 4 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Historic documents, books, photographs, and vintage ceremonial items will be on display.
Mr. McErlean, who grew up in Sag Harbor, hopes that the community might make occasional use of the lodge. The Masons meet there two evenings a month, but the space could be made available for other activities at other times.
The lodge master also hopes to revive interest in the group and add new members. In the 1920s, the Wamponamon Lodge had at least 120 brothers, according to records; there are about 35 members now, hailing from Riverhead to Montauk. The larger the group becomes, members say, the more it can do for the community.
Freemasonry, as it is known, is believed to have arisen from the stonemasons’ guilds during the Middle Ages. With chapters all over the world, its symbols, language, and rituals stem from its earliest days.
The fraternity once had far more participants. All but three or four of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were a great many men across New York State at the turn of the 20th century. Masons were among the founders of the Boy Scouts; the Shriners, who founded Shriner’s Hospitals, are all Masons.
A number of phrases in everyday speech, including the idea of being “blackballed,” “the third degree,” and being “fair and square” trace back to Freemasonry.
Early members in Sag Harbor included many of the village’s business leaders and prominent citizens. An early record book at the lodge lists the names of its members and their professions, from merchant to seaman to druggist. The local lodge’s name, Wamponamon, means “into the east,” Mr. McErlean said, and its symbol incorporates a canoe.