George Washington Masonic National Memorial
Washington, DC. Sweltering summer afternoon. You've been standing in line for what seems like days, just to look out of a window at the top of the Washington Monument. Why not take a drive across the Potomac River into Virginia, to the other Washington monument: the lavish (and line-free) George Washington Masonic National Memorial?
The Freemasons built this ten-story shrine to mimic the Ancient 7 Wonders lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt, and to remind people that Washington was the Guiding Light of the American Republic. He was the first President of the United States (although not everyone agrees with that) but he was also the first Worshipful Master of his Masonic Lodge. The memorial honors him as a "living stone" and "the milestone" and "the cornerstone of American civilization" -- the highest praise from a rock-happy fraternity.
The memorial is also a museum. Tucked into rooms scattered throughout its floors are worthy artifacts such as Washington's Clock of Death; a large, motorized miniature Shriner parade; and an ornate replica of the Ark of the Covenant, set inside a fake treasure room. It's a strange mix, but to Freemasons (and to fans of National Treasure movies) it all makes sense.
Big images of George are everywhere. An oversized bicentennial bas-relief ("a gift of Eastman Kodak Company") greets visitors on the lawn. A "Colossal Bronze" head overlooks the Grand Masonic Hall. A 17-foot-tall statue is flanked by 40-foot-tall granite pillars in the temple entrance, which resembles the Parthenon. The statue, as well as a life-size dummy downstairs, depict Washington wearing his frilly Freemason apron and other Masonic regalia.
(14 Presidents have been Freemasons, but Washington rightfully gets a memorial over historical Masonic clunkers such as William McKinley and Warren Harding.)
The memorial tries to impart gravitas to both Washington and Freemasonry, but its exotic trappings of Greek, Egyptian, and Persian design -- and the Mason's flamboyant 1920s Hollywood sense of symbols and theater -- keep getting in the way. This may frustrate the Masons, but it gives casual visitors (like us) lots of fun things to look at.
The Theater Room, for example, displays 191 alphabetically-arranged fezzes (from Alcazar to Zuhrah) and a Museum-of-Natural-History-style mural of Arabian Muslims trekking to Mecca -- except that they're all Caucasian Shriners in red-robed burnooses, with spears, scimitars, and camels. Across the hall is the motorized parade, which rumbles to life at the touch of a button, with over a thousand tiny elephants, chariots, marching bands, stilt-walkers, a building on wheels, a giant kid on crutches, and grown men in turbans and baggy trousers pounding on kettle drums.
There's an exhibit on Shriner mini-cars and a football signed by Gerald Ford, another Freemason President. In an adjacent room stands a bronze statue of a happy boy and girl walking under a gaudy gold-and-red-tiled archway. Over their heads floats a large, Sphinx-faced, scimitar-and-star Shriner emblem.
The Clock of Death is upstairs, stopped at the moment that Washington died by his physician, who was also a Worshipful Master. The tools that he used to bleed Washington to death are on display as well. There's a replica of Washington's apron, and a candle carried in Washington's funeral, and a shoe thrown by Washington's horse into an open cornerstone, which was reverently recovered when the building was torn down decades later.
The memorial is the repository of many odd mementos saved by Freemasons who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Abolitionist John Brown's handcuffs are on display outside of the Past Masters Gallery, next to a set of spurs worn by Santa Anna (of Mexican general/Alamo fame). A plaque notes that "Santa Anna owed his life...to the giving of a Masonic distress sign" to his American captors -- who also happened to be Masons. We're surprised that the omnipresent fraternity didn't get Santa Anna's leg, too.
The memorial's upper floors are reached by special elevators, which ascend at an angle to accommodate the narrowing of the tower. There are more fezzes on floor three, more Washington artifacts on floor four, the glittery Ark on floor five, and a medieval French Gothic chapel, complete with stained glass windows, on floor eight. The top floor has an outdoor observation deck, from which we could see landscapers tending to the nation's largest Masonic square-and-compass symbol, set into the lawn far below.
The very top of the memorial is capped with a small Egyptian pyramid and a stylized flame, which is meant to reveal the building as an allegorical lighthouse, "spreading the light and knowledge of Freemasonry to the world." To that end, it would really help if more non-Masons would visit, although the caretaker told us that not many do.