Exhibit Traces Influence of Freemasonry

Associated Press Writer
May 2005

WASHINGTON - Some of the most famous buildings in Washington, including the White House, are deeply marked by Freemasonry, the brotherhood that goes back to the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages, says a new exhibit.

The show is called "The Initiated Eye: Secrets, Symbols, Freemasonry and the Architecture of Washington D.C." It opened to the public Wednesday.

Peter Waddell, 49, a history painter born in New Zealand, contributed 21 pictures to the show. Now an American citizen, he puts emphasis on George Washington, shown as he dons his ritual Masonic apron on the way to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1792. Washington and 14 of his successors have been Freemasons, down through Lyndon Johnson.

Among the artifacts on view are a narrow white coffin strap, painted with Masonic symbols, used to lower Washington's body into the tomb at Mount Vernon.

Today's Freemasons owe their origin to associations of workmen who built cathedrals in Britain 700 years ago, though some believe in a connection with the mines where King Solomon took material for his Temple more than 2,000 years before that. Over the centuries the nature of Freemasonry changed. British lodges began to accept members who were not stonemasons. By the 1700s many lodges were called "speculative" — that is, they dealt in ideas rather than stone.

Members included people who were anything but workmen: the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington's aide and French statesman; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the musician; Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the German poet, scientist and statesman; King Frederick the Great of Prussia and four brothers of Napoleon.

On July 4, 1848, President James K. Polk, a Mason, presided over the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, with the widows of Alexander Hamilton and President James Madison in attendance. Using the same Masonic trowel that Washington had used at the Capitol, Benjamin Brown French as Grand Master of Masons in Washington and clerk of the House of Representatives presented the symbolic Masonic tools and defined the meaning of the symbols to Freemason Robert Mills, the architect.

"The square, level and plumb are the working tools you are to use in the erection of this monument," he said. "You, as a Freemason, know to what they morally elude: the plumb(line) admonishes to walk upright in our several stations before God and man, squaring our actions by the square of virtue, and remembering that we are traveling on the level of time..."

Despite definitions, Freemasonry has met serious antipathy, embodied in a hostile edict from the Vatican in 1738. In the early 1800s there was an anti-Masonic Party in the United States, which won seven electoral votes and elected a governor in Vermont. The movement faded by 1836.

In the 20th century the governments of Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany, Francisco Franco in Spain and East European regimes under Nazi influence actively persecuted Freemasons along with Jews, often linking the two.

In the 1950s, the structure of the White House was found so weak that it was unsafe for the tenants, President Harry Truman and his family. The house was gutted, leaving only the outside walls, and rebuilt. Truman, who held high office in Masonry, explored the framework. He found several of the original stones with marks made by Freemasons among the construction workers, had them inscribed and sent them to Masonic lodges around the country.

"Congress put a stop to that," Waddell noted.

James Hoban, the original architect of the White House, was a Mason, and stonecutters he brought from Scotland formed a Masonic lodge of their own, naming him as charter member.

The exhibit is housed in a historic building, The Octagon, one of the oldest houses in Washington, where the treaty was signed ending the War of 1812. President Madison and his wife Dolley stayed there after British forces burned much of Washington, including the White House.

The exhibit and a series of lectures have been organized by the American Architectural Foundation and the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia. The show will be on view through Dec. 31. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children and seniors.