The historic Masonic Lodge building on Ashland Plaza is about to get a facelift that will provide 25 new dining seats on an outside balcony for Granite Taphouse, yet retain the 1879 structure’s antique look and — the main purpose of the reworking — protect people on the street in case of an earthquake.

The construction, which is expected to be done by late March, will see three steel columns added inside the front of the building — bigger and much stronger than the present ones — and a horizontal steel beam atop the columns, supporting the concrete balcony and railing. The columns will be anchored in large, below-ground concrete footings bearing steel rods that go to bedrock, said building owner Allan Sandler.

The building will look pretty much the same — and the door to the balcony will replace and duplicate one of the seven existing tall windows.

Construction will involve tearing out the sidewalk in front of the 40-foot-long building and closing off nine parking spaces for a temporary pedestrian walkway. Two small trees sprouting out of the sidewalk in front will be cut down and replaced by indigenous species.

In the process, Sandler gifted the city with the walkway from the Plaza to Calle Guanajuato by the creek, which he built. The balcony project unanimously cleared the Historic and Planning commissions and City Council, he said, and he has a building permit in hand.

Granite Taphouse owner Marco Traversa said many patrons ask for al fresco seating in summer but walk away when they find it’s all inside, even though it was voted best new restaurant in Southern Oregon a few years ago.

The third-story balcony plan came at a fortuitous time, Sandler notes, as City Hall is increasingly concerned about seismically upgrading Plaza buildings, many of which were built over a century ago and are deemed vulnerable in a big quake, which studies indicate is inevitable.

The rigid steel facade will stand independent of the building, neither holding it up nor being held up by it, but it is designed to fulfill its mission, Sandler says, that “no one is going to get killed in front of it in a big quake.”

Ashland historian and preservationist George Kramer says if the project got approvals and doesn’t impact the Plaza historically, “it’s fine.” However, he adds, Plaza real estate is “incredibly valuable” because the city doesn’t focus enough on alternative sites for tourist commerce, forcing building owners to “maximize their footprint” on the Plaza.

“Buildings change," he adds. "It’s zoned for three- and four-story buildings. What I worry about is it changes here and there, and soon it can change its history, but I don’t believe this puts it over the edge.”

The Plaza and its neighborhood have a couple other balconies — including at the Brickroom and Martino’s — which are popular on summer evenings. The Brickroom’s second-story balcony is used for Santa to trigger the Grand Illumination at the Festival of Lights — and Sandler notes his new spot could be used for that or other festivities.

The atmosphere of fine dining at Granite Taphouse won’t change, he said, adding that as long as he’s landlord, there won’t be any atmosphere of “heavy metal, nightclub music and drunkenness.”

The Masonic Lodge was built soon after the disastrous 1879 Plaza fire, which burned down all the wood buildings. Townsfolk vowed to use brick after that. In its first decades, it was fronted by a dirt Plaza with hitching posts for wagons. As a social hall, it hosted President Rutherford B. Hayes and Civil War General William T. Sherman.

In a big 1929 remodel by noted architect Frank Clark, the building got a third story. To keep with that history, the balcony will adopt the “look” of other balconies in the valley executed by him, says Sandler.

The building now houses Gold and Gems, Thread Hysteria, Enoteca Wine Bar, the Loft and Granite Taphouse. It was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Sandler also owns the Martino’s building and the building that houses Tree House Books next door to the Granite Taphouse, as well as several other buildings in town.

His long career as a filmmaker includes shooting parts of many movies in Ashland in the decade after he and wife, Sally, moved here in 1983.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.