By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
It had been 30 years since Alexandria last had one of its historic sites designated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, and the August 4 designation of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial came on an auspicious date of its own: the 262nd anniversary of George Washington becoming a Master Mason.
The towering 333-foot structure joins the Old and Historic District, Christ Church, Gerald R. Ford House, Freedom House and Gadsby’s Tavern as national historic landmarks, and while the date of its designation was a coincidence of history, it came at the end of a years long application process.
The memorial was funded entirely by donations from the Masonic community, with every Lodge in the United States contributing to the costs of construction, and it was dedicated at a lavish ceremony on May 12, 1932, less than three months after the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth — February 22.
At the time, The Washington Post reported that in spite of rain that day and just 20,000 spectators turning out to watch the parade instead of an anticipated 150,000, the memorial was received enthusiastically by the citizens of Alexandria and the throngs of watching dignitaries, especially given the role of Freemasonry throughout the history of the city.
“[Freemasons] were a significant influence in the city, right from its Colonial days,” said Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. “Many of the town’s leaders like George Washington and others were involved with the Masons, so I would say they were a very significant influence for many years.”
Before the memorial was built, Masons spent many years meeting in the old City Hall that dated from the 1700s and burned down in 1871. To this day, the current structure retains Masonic symbols of a compass and the letter “G” in the room they met in — the present-day Avery Conference Room — but with the growth of the number of artifacts they wanted to house and the desire to have a national Masonic memorial to the first president, it was decided to build an independent structure.
Since its construction, the memorial has become significant to Masonry for a number of reasons.
“First of all, and this is one of the things that was noted by the NPS, it’s the only collective project of the Masonic fraternity in the United States of an architectural nature,” said memorial spokesman Shawn Eyer. “This place has a national significance for all American Freemasons, who are part of the building organizationally. They’re a part of its support and the fraternity that conceived, planned, funded and built and maintained this building. It has a very deep tie to the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. The NPS recognized that it’s notable as an exceptional private tribute to [Washington] by a private group.”
And Eyer said the building also is significant from an architectural standpoint, having been designed by American architect Harvey Wiley Corbett to reflect the confluence of old and new as one of a number of projects including the George Washington Memorial Parkway that commemorated the bicentennial of Washington’s birth.
“[Corbett] was famous for many early skyscrapers, he was able to blend styles very artfully and there are numerous other examples of that here at the memorial,” Eyer said. “He blended Classical style with some art-deco elements and that was very carefully planned to create an effect that would link the ancient world, the ancient classical world, with the contemporary world of 1920s America and show the theme, which is shared in Freemasonry, of continuity and tradition.
“Architecturally, it’s a very unique building and certainly if you go inside to Memorial Hall, where we have a statue of George Washington as the master of a lodge, specifically the master of the Alexandria Lodge, then that’s another aspect of the architecture. It’s reminiscent of many other memorials, but with a special difference because the emphasis here is on Washington’s connection to the Masonic heritage.”
The memorial now acts as a meeting place and functioning museum open seven days a week filled with Masonic artifacts and stunning panoramic views of Alexandria and D.C. from its observatory on the ninth floor. It also hosts the Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22, of which Washington was Master, and Mallamo said the memorial retains a dual significance for both Freemasonry and the city of Alexandria.
“It’s certainly very important to Freemasonry, but I think it’s also important to Alexandria,” he said. “It occupies a phenomenal site in the city, it’s viewable all the way up King Street almost from the waterfront. Even the Metro station has a cut in the roofline of the station platform’s waiting areas so you maintain that roofline.
“It was certainly one of the earliest of what could be termed skyscrapers in the city, built on a historic site in its own right on where Fort Ellsworth in the Civil War had been and earlier the plantation house of the Dulany family. It’s a very important structure to the city of Alexandria and the Masons all across the United States.”