Ideals of Freemasonry at District's Foundation; Influences Abound, from Capitol to Dollar Bill

Article excerpt


The evidence is there on the money. Traces are found in the configuration of the District of Columbia. Their touch is present in the shape of the Washington Monument, the orientation of the Capitol building, and in countless other structures throughout the city.

If you look hard enough, Masonic influences are everywhere.

"The Masons were intimately involved in the history of the District of Columbia and in the history of the nation," says artist Peter Waddell, whose paintings are featured in an exhibit currently running at the Octagon on New York Avenue NW, "The Initiated Eye: Secrets, Symbols, Freemasonry and the Architecture of Washington, D.C."

The Octagon mounted the exhibit in partnership with the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington, D.C. A July 30 bus tour sponsored by the museum will uncover the Masonic symbolism behind some of Washington's most famous buildings and memorials, from the White House to the FDR Memorial.

But if you can't wait until then, a trip to the Octagon is a good place to start. Mr. Waddell's large-scale paintings function both as historical documents and interpretive panels:

Here is George Washington laying the cornerstone of the Capitol, which he did in 1793 in full Masonic regalia with due Masonic ceremony.

Here are the Scottish and Irish stone workers who helped to build the White House holding a Masonic meeting on the grounds after work has ended for the day.

And here is the construction of the Scottish Rite Temple on 16th Street, the most expensive private building of its time, considered the greatest work of architect John Russell Pope in this city.

Don't stop with the exhibit. Once you've been initiated, a trip around town will never be the same. Many neighborhoods can boast their own Masonic hall. Some of them are still used; others are long abandoned.

Statues of Latin American revolutionary heroes along Virginia Avenue NW - Benito Juarez at Virginia and New Hampshire, Simon Bolivar at 18th and C and Virginia, and Jose de San Martin at Virginia and 20th Street - have one thing in common: All the men they honor were Masons. And a stroll down U Street NW will take you past the hall of the Prince Hall Masons, home to Duke Ellington and Thurgood Marshall.

"It's an extraordinary city, full of mystery," says Mr. Waddell, an American citizen originally from New Zealand who, though not himself a Mason, began working on the project about two years ago.

"There are many things about the place and design that coincide with Masonic ideals," he said.

Coincidence? Well, maybe. But it's hard to ignore the symbolic language embedded in Washington's buildings, statues and memorials.

Most of the city's important buildings were devised by Masons. Architect James Hoban, who designed the White House, was a Mason. Capitol architect Benjamin Latrobe was a Mason. Architect Robert Mills, responsible for the Washington Monument, was a Mason. Cornerstones for all these were laid after elaborate Masonic parades and dedication ceremonies.

Masons, who make it a point of principle to "seek the light" at all times, say it's no accident that the Capitol was placed on the Mall's eastern end - which means people must "look toward the light" when they turn to it from the Mall - or that the statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome faces east, toward the light of the rising sun.

"We'll probably never know whether those early Masons spent time in the lodge talking about the symbolism of the city and how it would be realized," says Akram Elias, junior grand warden of the Grand Lodge, Free And Accepted Masons (FAAM) of the District of Columbia, on MacArthur Boulevard NW, who will be leading the bus tour.

"But people certainly embraced the ideas and internalized the concepts that were being discussed. …