Checking Out the GW Masonic Memorial
By: Janet Wintermute
Friends, I finally managed my Saturday so as to make the 20-mile trip down to Alexandria, Virginia, to visit the huge and impressive George Washington Masonic Memorial. If you haven't yet seen it in person, here's a mini-travelogue to encourage you to come.
The memorial sits atop Shooter's Hill, a lofty peak in mid-Atlantic terms, about 3 miles west of the western shore of the Potomac River. Duke Street, one of Alexandria's main east-west arteries, runs directly from the base of the monument to Old Town and the river.
Because of its lofty vantage point, Shooter's Hill was the site of a Revolutionary War fort (now totally gone except for some irregularities in the soil line that can be viewed from the monument's top-story observation deck). It was slated for residential development when masonry bought the parcel and began plans to erect the monument. The cornerstone was laid in 1923, and the edifice was finished in 1932. It has a broad rectangular base and soaring steeple. The interior rooms were finished and decorated at different times. The last-added space was a Tall Cedars room at the same level as the obs. deck; it was finished in 1986.
The building is open every day of the year except Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Day, and there's no charge to visit. Volunteer docents take small groups of visitors on a tour that brings them into several of the specialty rooms.
The building is accessible to handicapped visitors, and the tour moves up and down by elevator.
My group-a young married couple, three older male masons, and me-began our progress in a room devoted to Royal Arch masonry. It was lined with Egyptian-style murals painted by Allyn Cox and depicting the presentation of carved keystones to the supervisor/overseer for quality-control checks.
The room was set up in semidarkness with sequential lights coming on to highlight sections of the mural while a prerecorded speech was piped into the room on the docent's command.
Next we went into a smaller room designed to mimic the underground chamber in King Solomon's temple. Again, the chamber was decorated with handsome murals.
The next room was an intimate cruciform chapel sponsored by the York Rite and Knights Templar. By now we were fairly high up in the steeple, and all four sides of this chamber were decorated with stunning stained-glass windows depicting various Christian motifs. The dark woodwork was accented by two full sets of medieval armor. I appreciate the fact that the docent acknowledged that these were reproductions and not originals. It would have been easy for him to gloss over that.... In a wall-mounted glass case was a genuine Crusader's sword [the date of its metal has been authenticated, though the docent stated that nobody could prove it was actually used in the Crusades]. The 1.5-inch-wide blade was about 4 feet long. The 8-inch handle appeared to be twisted (twirled) metal.
The prerecorded voice-over script stated plainly that the York Rite is overtly Christian in its focus, unlike other branches of the Masonic tree.
Down we went into a larger part of the steeple, to visit the Scottish Rite room. It's much bigger, two full storeys high or more, and ringed with tall clear glass windows on all four sides so light pours in. A huge bronze statue of George Washington (wearing his apron) is the focus of attention, along with a stunning blue-grounded oriental carpet about 25 x 20 feet in size. In the windows on three sides hang big flags of the original 13 colonies. The sides of the room are lined with wooden, glass-fronted display cases holding all sorts of GW memorabilia and historical documents. For you accuracy freaks there's a huge graduated set of brass weights and measures struck for and transported to Fairfax County from England for use in official measurement settings. The linear measurement device was described as "five-fourths of a yard" in length. Another case holds one of Washington's personal leather field trunks, studded with darkened brass knobs and lined with wallpaper.
The SR room was undergoing some refurbishment. A couple of the flags were out of their assigned windows, for instance, and the voice-over-if they use one there-was not operating.
We ended our tour at the top of the steeple in the relatively tiny room sponsored by the Tall Cedars order. I had never heard of TC before. The docent remarked that it was begun in Harrisburg, PA, and has spread more or less north from there into Canada. Their literature on display deems them a fun-oriented outfit (in the sense the Shriners use this term), and I believe the voice-over stated that Tall Cedars' charitable endeavors are centered around the fight against muscular dystrophy. The room was lined on every surface with cedar from Lebanon. A diorama depicts King Solomon's copper mines.
The observation walkway, which goes around all four sides of the steeple about 20 feet down from the top, is reached from the Tall Cedars room by going up three of four steps. What a view! The weather was clear, cool, and very windy, and we could see for about 15 miles in all directions. The leaves have just begun to turn, and the Potomac stretched in a lazy lead-colored ribbon around us on three sides.
After the tour guide returned us to the main floor-itself a huge, columned space lined with spectacular GW murals-I asked if the rug we had seen in the SR room was the famous one, billed as the hemisphere's largest. Oh, no, says the docent: to see that you have to go down one floor. The tour broke up but I went down there. It was definitely worth the trip! The "reely big shew," carpetwise, is a 50- x 30-foot brick-red-grounded oriental that is said to have taken 12 full-time weavers a total of 27 years to finish. It was the property of a castle-owning European family who were forced to sell off their possessions earlier in this century. A Chicago mason who dealt in oriental carpets for his living heard it might be available, went to Europe to scope it out and buy it, and about 20 years later donated it to the Memorial. At that time (mid-forties), it was valued by him at $1.5 million. I can easily believe it. What a beauty-and nobody is allowed to walk on this one.
Just as I was about to check out the gift shop and leave, I ran into a local mainstream mason I know from the Virginia suburbs. He arranged that I could go up to the library although the Memorial did not have a librarian on staff that day. I spent another 2 hours alone, burrowing around in the Memorial's huge collection.
I picked up many interesting factoids. For instance, Virginia has almost 53,000 enrolled masons (this is, the mainstreamers, under the GL of VA). Indiana has 103,000, almost as many as the much more populous Illinois. My father was raised in Peoria in 1930, so I glanced through the hardbound book from the GL of IL for that year. It's amazing how much material has been preserved and for how long in book form. The annual volumes containing the collected research of Quatuor Coronati lodge went back a *long* way.
On the periodicals shelf, I found and read the August Philalethes journal [it had a fascinating article about the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, who fought on the Tory side in the Revolutionary War and became a mason in London during a trip to be presented at court] and the current GL of VA magazine. On the cover of Actualite, the journal of the National Grand Lodge of France, is a picture of the GW Masonic Memorial!
Besides returning the library, I plan to study the artwork more carefully on my next visit. The murals and classical American oils of GW and his family, including one mystery woman thought to be George's "Lowland Beauty."
Virtual Tour of Washington Memorial
Another Good Tour
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