A Memorial to the Character of George Washington
A Hidden (National) Treasure
The George Washington Masonic Memorial is another perfect example of a DC area gem being hidden in plain sight. (See also my hub about historic Fort McNair.) The most visible landmark for visitors arriving in Alexandria, the Masonic Memorial displays unique and irreplaceable historic artifacts, serves as a venue for concerts and community events and helps to demystify the beliefs of Freemasonry.
This memorial is the only Masonic building supported by the 52 Grand (State) Lodges of the United States. Its mission is to educate the public and to honor and promote the virtues, character and vision of George Washington, the charter Worshipful Master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22, which upon his death changed its name to Alexandria-Washington Lodge 22.
From the beginning of the 19th century, Lodge No. 22 met in quarters in Market Square. When those quarters burned, destroying many historic and unique relics, it occupied new quarters within city hall.
In 1945, the Lodge moved to the recently completed George Washington Masonic Memorial, (known locally as the Masonic Temple) on Shuters (Sometimes spelled “Shooters”) Hill. President Coolidge laid the cornerstone using the trowel that General Washington had used to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol; Freemason and Chief Justice Howard Taft also attended the ceremony.
The Hall of Presidents on the first floor displays portraits of those chief executives who were Masons, including Monroe, Jackson, Polk, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Garfield, McKinley, both Roosevelts, Harding, Roosevelt, and Ford. Although President Lincoln had applied for membership, he withdrew during his election campaign saying that he would reapply later.
Not only Masons have been involved in the Memorial's history, though. Many of the nation;s top officials have participated in its development. President Hoover, for example, attended the 1932 dedication of the unfinished monument, as did most members of both chambers of Congress. The U.S.S. Constitution, anchored in Alexandria for the event, joined an artillery battery and Coast Guard cutters also anchored in the Potomac for the event, in firing a 21-gun salute when the president and his entourage arrived for the ceremony.
In 1948, President Truman, past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Missouri, presented the Memorial with a lighted replica of the Great Seal of the United States that had been displayed on the roof of the Government Printing Office until it was damaged by a lightning strike. He later also dedicated the bronze statue of Washington in the great hall.
Vice President and member of the Knights Templar Richard Nixon dedicated the Royal Arch Room in 1957. This room is one of several on the tour of the upper levels of the Memorial.
During the Civil War, Shuters Hill was the site of Fort Ellsworth, a huge Union encampment named for the colonel who died at the Marshall House Hotel. Some reports indicate that Presidents Madison and Jefferson had considered the site ideal for the U.S. Capitol. It also figures prominently in the Wright brothers’ aviation history.
In 1908, Orville Wright fulfilled the requirements (a minimum one-hour flight with a passenger) of his U.S. Army contract to build an airplane. Wright and a passenger flew from Fort Myer (in Arlington) to Shuters Hill and back in just over 62 minutes, finally confirming that there was a future for manned aircraft.
Today, the 333-foot Masonic Memorial rises proudly from Shuters Hill. The main entrance is through the impressive and dignified Memorial Hall, where visitors’ eyes are drawn naturally to the 17-foot bronze statue representing George Washington in the full Masonic regalia he would have worn when he laid the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol. Behind the massive columns on the south wall, a grand mural captures that event. On the opposite wall, a second mural represents Masons attending a service honoring St. John the Baptist, their patron saint at Christ’s Church in Philadelphia. High above the murals, stained glass windows representing local historic figures including Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick and General Lafayette, subdue the light that enters the hall.
The Memorial includes an array of surprises including a remarkable reproduction of the Ark of the Covenant, the handcuffs that John Brown wore to his execution, and the spurs that General Santa Anna was wearing when he was captured by Sam Houston. In both of the latter cases, Masons were present at the event. The relics are displayed in cases in rooms to the left of the stairs on the second floor.
The auditorium at the back of the memorial was the site used at the beginning of the second of the “National Treasures” films.
The guided tours take elevators (at a 7 degree angle of ascent) to the ninth floor observation tower for a spectacular view of Alexandria and the waterfront. Washington monuments are visible to the north, and the U.S. Patent and Trade Office just a short distance to the southeast.
Descending from the observation platform, the elevator stops at six additional levels, with exhibits that explain the origin, history and symbolism of the Masons.
The lowest level offers a brief film about the history of Shriners in the United States a 20-foot mechanized Shriners’ parade, and displays describing the work of Shriners’ hospitals for children throughout the world.
My favorite room is the often-overlooked replica room in the southeast corner of the main floor, off Memorial Hall. In addition to the original furniture and painting arranged to replicate Lodge 22 in 1812, it displays the silver trowel the General used to lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol, the Masonic apron Lafayette’s wife embroidered for him and the bedroom clock that doctor and close friend James Craik stopped at the moment of Washington’s death.
As I mentioned in my brief reference to the Masonic Temple in the first Alexandria history hub, it now costs $5 a head to visit the bottom two floors and $8 for the full tour, which includes the observation tower and the floors between.
The Memorial is open from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily, ex major holidays. Guided Tower Tours 10:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.
- Welcome to the George Washington Masonic Memorial
The Memorial's excellent website provides current information and additional details.