Buildings are meaningless without the people who inhabit them.

This is especially true for the 130-year-old Masonic Temple located at 6th Street and Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Today it bustles with dancers, actors, musicians and other artists as part of the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts complex. But a century ago, the building housed a very different set of makers.

Choreographer Sally Rousse spent 25 years working there, first as co-founder of James Sewell Ballet and more recently as an independent artist. But she looked to the building’s original tenants — the fraternal order of Masons — to inspire “Icon Sam: Temple Dances,” a new show celebrating the building’s past, present and future.

“I’ve always thought it was really interesting, the interplay of the Masons and the artists,” said Rousse, “the fact of these two societies coming together in this one building.”

Built in 1888 for the Masonic Temple Association, the edifice at 528 Hennepin Av. S. was designed in the Richardson Romanesque style by Minnesota architecture firm Long and Kees. The facades are made of Ohio sandstone. Onion-shaped domes once topped the turrets. Joining the Masons inside were dozens of professionals — doctors, lawyers and dentists — plus retail businesses at the ground level.

After an ownership change in 1947, the structure became the Merchandise Building. By 1979, four years after Minnesota Dance Theatre signed on as the building’s first arts tenant, the structure assumed a new identity as Hennepin Center for the Arts. Long-term occupants include Illusion Theater and Zenon Dance Company.

During a recent interview in one of the center’s airy studios, Rousse noted how Masons and dancers share a common desire for open rooms. Masons “knew how to make free-span space without columns in the middle,” she said.

Dancers and masons also share a flair for performance, she added. “Masons did incredible skits and plays to attract membership.”

Artspace Projects acquired the building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1997. There was also the move of the entire Shubert Theater building in 1999 — from Block E to its current spot next to Hennepin Center for the Arts. The entire complex was renamed the Cowles Center in 2011.

According to Artspace President Kelley Lindquist, a $7 million capital campaign, ending in 2019, will fund upgrades for the old Masonic Temple including new elevators, roof and windows.

“No one will ever build a building like that again in the city,” he said.

Building bridges

“Icon Sam” (an anagram of “Masonic”) caps Rousse’s yearlong artist-in-residence project, focused on bridging what she describes as the “perceived and real tensions between the populations inside and outside” the Cowles Center.

She tackled the complex’s current challenges head-on. “We have a huge homeless population downtown,” Rousse said. “We have a bus stop right here. We have light rail. A lot of sex trade going on, clubs and stores. What we’ve uncovered is a lot of negative feelings about the Cowles Center.”

Many arts patrons fear crime along Hennepin. “A lot of people don’t love coming downtown,” Rousse noted. “There are people who rush in and out of here, taking classes, and they never spend time out front on the sidewalk.”

In turn, Rousse added, other passers-by may perceive the Cowles Center as inaccessible.

Rousse responded to these tensions by offering several dance workshops in the Cowles Center atrium, free for anyone who wished to attend. Community organizers from the Minneapolis chapter of MAD DADS provided a warm welcome. (The group advocates against drugs, gangs and violence.)

Rousse also involved Marcus Young, whose ongoing “Don’t You Feel it Too” project brings dancers into public spaces to move while listening to personal soundtracks via earphones. Dancing in the lobby and entrance during three days in late May, said Rousse, helped to “reflect on the Cowles as a joyful place or a place of freedom, a place of shared belonging, a place of inclusion.”

In addition, Rousse collaborated with artist/graphic designer Coco Connolly and the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Made Here initiative to wrap plain brown doors with large photos featuring dancers — particularly women of color — with hopes of introducing the public to goings-on within the Cowles Center’s Goodale Theater.

And the final stage of Rousse’s residency is “Icon Sam,” a performance tour for 40 audience members at a time, with a wide variety of collaborating artists stationed throughout the old Temple’s several floors and hidden nooks. The show will highlight the former ceremonial halls (now dance studios and theaters) as well as the buttressed eighth floor, where Masons once drilled with giant spears and flags.

“The space really heightens the performance,” said participating artist Judith Howard. After a recent rehearsal, Howard went on to explain how her performance (in the second-floor Tek Box) will integrate the Masonic concepts of duality with more contemporary concepts of gender fluidity.

Indeed, the project focuses on transition in many forms — transition of a building’s story, transitions within self-identity, the transition of an audience that follows a show from beginning to end. “The fact they are making the physical journey themselves is very rich,” Rousse said.

At the finale, audience members will be encouraged to speak freely with others about their experience. Rousse hopes it will help demystify the Cowles Center and all the art-making that happens inside.

“I think Sally is creating a huge gift for all of us,” Lindquist said. “She’s bringing attention to the Cowles Center so people can feel ownership of it.”

Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.