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The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia is a national center of Freemasonry and a uniquely designed Freemason structure that combines Neo-Classical and skyscraper architectural features. The Masonic National Memorial is one of the most expensive and monumental private efforts to memorialize the nation’s first President and represents a rare nationwide cooperation of Freemason lodges. Originally intended as a museum to house important artifacts commemorating the life of George Washington, the building of the Memorial began in 1922, but was not officially completed and opened to the public until 1970. Now one of the most grand and recognizable buildings in the Washington area skyline, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial was designated as a National Historic Monument in 2015.
Freemasonry is a political and social organization that traces its origins to Medieval British labor collectives of skilled craftsmen called trade guilds. In the 18th century, stone mason guild meetings became Enlightenment-era salons where middle-class tradesmen could exchange ideas on contemporary society and politics. These socially concious guilds formed the earliest Freemason groups in the British Isles and dedicated themselves to upholding the principles of personal liberty and freedom of thought. During the late 1700s, Freemasonry societies became popular among the political and military leaders of the Revolutionary forces in the American colonies, including George Washington.
Washington began his life as a Freemason in 1752 at the age of twenty when he was admitted into a small Freemason Lodge in Fredericksburg, Virginia. For the rest of his military and political career, Washington was an active member of Freemason social circles and established Alexandria’s Freemason Lodge No. 22 in 1788. Upon Washington’s death, Lodge No. 22 was granted many of Washington’s personal belongings, artifacts referred to as Washingtonia, including those related to his term as the Lodge’s first Grand Master.
In the mid-19th century, Washington’s personal life and career became topics of renewed public and academic interest. Locations important in Washington’s life, such as Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg and Mount Vernon in Fairfax County, became the focus of intensive preservation efforts. With increased membership during the Progressive Era, Freemason groups across the nation began highlighting their organization’s role in shaping the United States through Freemasons like Washington. In 1910, Freemason leaders from across the nation convened in Washington D.C. to discuss financing a grand monument and museum dedicated to George Washington. Out of this conference, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association was formed which began raising money for the construction of a Washington-dedicated monument and park on Shooter’s Hill in eastern Alexandria, Virginia.
The Association hired famed New York skyscraper architect Harvey Wiley Corbett to design the Memorial and the surrounding grounds. Within weeks of being hired, Corbett drafted a design model of the Memorial as a modern-day reimagining of an ancient Mediterranean lighthouse featuring both Neoclassical and modern skyscraper architectural elements. The design plan for the Memorial called for a raised columnated portico of New Hampshire granite at the base of the structure and a four-tiered stone and steel tower rising from its center. Corbett’s final skyscraper design was enthusiastically approved by the Freemason Grandmasters of the Memorial Association and ground was officially broken on June 5, 1922 during a ceremony attended by President Calvin Coolidge. As costs for the construction mounted in the next decade, the Freemasons refused to borrow money for construction and instead adopted a slow, but fiscally responsible approach to financing based on Lodge donations.
While construction took place over several periods throughout the 1920’s, the exterior of the Memorial was finally completed in February of 1931. As a result of the economic pressures of the Great Depression, construction on the Memorial’s interior was slowed. Over the next four decades, various architectural firms and artists would work to complete the Memorial’s interior museum space and Freemason meeting chambers. Some of the most iconic art pieces displayed by the Memorial include a seventeen-foot-tall bronze statue of Washington designed by Bryant Baker and artist Allyn Cox’s murals depicting episodes from Washington’s life in the Memorial Hall.
The George Washington Masonic National Memorial is truly a unique landmark as it represents a rare occasion of nationwide cooperation among American Freemasons to build a monumental landmark to George Washington that enshrines his role as a lifelong Freemason. Among the many memorials and monuments to the life of the nation’s first President in and around the District of Columbia, the Masonic National Memorial uniquely highlights George Washington’s moralistic principles and personal beliefs. Therefore, the Memorial serves as a visual metaphor for Freemasonry’s role in shaping the life and career of George Washington and the United States of America.
Bullock, Steven C.
1996, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
The George Washington Masonic National Memorial, Mount Vernon Association, https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/freemasonry/the-george-washington-masonic-national-memorial/, retrieved 5/26/2020
Elliot, Paul and Stephen Daniels
2006, The 'School of True, Useful and Universal Science'? Freemasonry, Natural Philosophy and Scientific Culture in Eighteenth-Century England, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 39, No. 2
National Park Service
2015, George Washington Masonic National Memorial- National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, National Park Service, Department of the Interior
National Park Service
2015, George Washington Masonic National Memorial, National Historic Landmarks Program, National Park System Advisory Board for Historic Preservatio
Mitnick, Barbara J. et al.
1999, George Washington: American Symbol, Hudson Hills Press, NY, Museum at Stony Brook and the Museum of Our National Heritage
National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States. The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of such sites. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
About Shooter's Hill
The memorial sits upon Shooter's Hill (also known at Shuter's Hill). During the War of 1812, with Alexandria under British control in August 1814, top-ranking U.S. military men gathered at this high point above the city. President Madison conferred with Secretary of the Navy William Jones, Brigadier General John Hungerford, and U.S. Navy Captain David Porter, Jr. The men decided to harass the British ships as they withdrew down the Potomac.