Museum vision: “To inspire humanity through education to emulate and promote the virtues, character and vision of George Washington, the Man, the Mason and Father of our Country.”
Week 7’s museum was Mount Vernon, so I recently learned a lot, and had my memory refreshed, about George Washington. Today’s visit to the George Washington Masonic Memorial (commonly referred to as the Masonic Temple) built on that focus on the life, ideas, and objects of our first president.
The impressive building is one of the few tall buildings in a region that does not have much of a skyline. It sits on a hill just blocks from the King Street Metro; a view of the building greets anyone riding this part of the Metro system who happens to glance out the window. This Alexandria, Virginia building is inspired by the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt. (It is said that the more recent Alexandria was named after Philip Alexander, one of the city’s founders in the 18th century.) Ancient Greek and Roman architecture also influenced the design.
To reach the entrance to the memorial, I climbed a great many stairs, and once inside, I paid for a guided tour. We began on the second floor, the entry level. The tour guide did his best to explain, despite the echoing acoustics, that the first room serves as the actual memorial to George Washington. Like the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials on the National Mall, this room features a large statue of the memorial’s subject, surrounded by open space under a high ceiling.
In the Replica Lodge Room, the tour guide pointed out the setup of furniture from the original Alexandria-Washington Lodge Room that began meeting in Alexandria’s City Hall in 1802. Three sides of the room are each set up for one of three Masonic leadership roles.
We rode the elevators to see exhibits on the fourth and third floors (in that order), and then to the Observation Deck toward the top of the tower. We had the opportunity to step outside and look at the panoramic view, which would have been even better if it were not such a foggy day.
Next we rode the elevators back down to the second (entry) floor, where we were free to see exhibits on the second floor and the first floor underneath. The elevators themselves, one on the north side and one on the south side, are 61 feet apart at the bottom and only four and a half feet apart at the top. How is this possible? The elevators have wheels and are inclined at a seven-and-a-half degree angle, so they move closer together as they move upward.
Freemasons take their name, and several metaphors, from stonemasons. The Washington Masonic Memorial’s website states, “Freemasonry employs the tools and instruments of stonemasonry to teach a system of morality, friendship and brotherly love, hence, the standard emblem of Freemasonry is the square and compasses.” To join, one must be considered to have an honest and virtuous character, and must also be male and believe in a supreme being. George Washington was one of several American presidents who belonged to the fraternal organization.
Throughout the exhibits, the symbolic importance of architecture and building to Freemasons is prominent. The idea of building Solomon’s Temple from the Bible, charts of architectural tools and symbols, the comparison of rough and perfect ashlars (rough versus perfectly square smooth blocks of stone, representing the Mason’s striving for perfection) – all are depicted multiple times throughout the exhibits. On the first floor is an exhibit showing the exteriors of Masonic lodges throughout the country, accompanied by the quote, “Ours is an order of builders, the most ancient and honorable in the world, and it is beneath the dignity of our Lodges to eke out a comfortless existence in rented flats.”
The museum is not just about Freemasonry itself. As I mentioned before, the visit reminded me of going to Mount Vernon, as both are full of George Washington paraphernalia. At the Masonic Temple, Washington is revered as a prime example of what it means to be a virtuous Mason, contributing much to civic life while living by a set of morals both publicly and privately. The temple displays artifacts from Mount Vernon, the Washington family Bible, a chair in which Washington sat, and numerous other objects from his life. Additionally, the building is full of portraits, statues, and busts of the first president.
Any visitor hoping for a scintillating tour full of references to Dan Brown and The Lost Symbol will be disappointed. This museum is about real objects, the real history of the Freemasons, and the legacy of George Washington.
January’s blog theme is Communication Is Architecture.