House of the Temple
If you're a fan of Dan Brown or various conspiracy novels, or if you just drive around the north side of Washington, DC, then you're familiar with the House of the Temple. Neoclassically majestic and menacing, it looks like an official U.S. government building. But it's the museum, library, and clubhouse of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.
The House of the Temple was modeled after the Mausoleum of Maussollos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Its guardian Sphinxes ("Wisdom" and "Power") each weigh 17 tons and were sculpted by the man who later designed the Mercury Dime. And a little sign, standing on one of its sweeping outdoor steps, declares that it's open for tours. Well, why not?
Colin, our guide, met us at the bronze doors. Inside, the House of the Temple looks like the tomb of King Tut. Thick columns of green granite, statues covered in hieroglyphics, god-headed lamps with alabaster bowls that look as if they should be filled with flaming oil. Colin said that the House of the Temple was built "ritualistically," with no structural steel or concrete. The stone walls are nine feet thick. There's no plastic anywhere, and no air conditioning.
We took in all the sumptuous marble, metal, leather, velvet, and rare hardwoods, and tried to calculate the Masons' weekly bill for waxing and cleaning.
One reason that the House of the Temple is open to the public is to dispel the notion that the Masons are some super-powerful pan-national weirdo cabal. Yet one of the first stops on the tour is at the tombs of Sovereign Grand Commanders Albert Pike and John Cowles -- in the wall. It took a special act of Congress to allow the Masons to bury them there; Pike was dug up, Cowles wasn't even dead yet. Do you think that that your civic organization could get a special act of Congress to do that?
Powerful and well-known men have been members, including several Presidents and astronauts. Items displayed in the building's several mini-museums reflect the connection. There's the Bible used at (Mason) George Washington's funeral, a scale model of Mount Rushmore used by sculptor (and Mason) Gutzon Borglum, and the Scottish Rite flag carried by (Mason) Buzz Aldrin as he walked on the moon.
Despite the long list of celebrities, only two are honored with special rooms in the House of the Temple: the questionably-reputable Pike (his mementos include what may have been his opium pipes), and Burl Ives, the "Holly Jolly Christmas" singing snowman from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Ives, it turns out, was one of the highest ranked Masons ever. The exhibits in his room stress his charity work, but we were dazzled by Burl's bling: a solid gold bracelet with BURL in diamonds, and his rope necklaces of strung-together turquoise and bear claws, like something worn by a guru of opulence.
The House of the Temple enshrines a strange mix of the banal and the perplexing. There are cases filled with unexciting business executive crap such as autographed footballs, decorative nutcrackers, and souvenir mugs.
Then there's the massive black marble altar in the cathedral-size Temple Room; and the gallery of disquieting ultra-realistic still-life paintings of Scottish Rite aprons and gloves; and a long hallway that leads to a perfect 18-inch cube and a lumpy rock that may have been touched by George Washington.
It makes no sense, at least to those of us who overslept on the day when all the business career decoder rings were handed out.
We saw no pens of sacrificial goats on our tour, and Colin assured us that there were no secret passages (but if we had a building with secret passages, we wouldn't tell our tour guides either). Colin said that he sometimes has to deal with a skeptical public.
"They're always older," he said. "They'll say, 'I want to see in there,' and I'll say, 'Well, you're not allowed to go in there,' and they'll ask, 'Why not?' And I'll say, 'Well, it's a kitchen, or it's an office where my boss has their desk. You can't see it because it's not part of the tour.' And they'll say, 'Is there something secret in there?' And I'll say, 'It's just an office. Like any other office.'"