An Exceptionally Rich Architectural Heritage

An Order that simultaneously makes reference to the Great Architect of the Universe, the builders of the cathedrals, and to times immemorial from whose roots it claims to draw (through appeal to its foundations in both Solomon’s Temple and the pyramids of Egypt) could hardly do otherwise, in the land of superlatives, than use the mirror of architecture to restore and physically manifest its presence in the eyes of the outside world, where it is already hardly any secret, and, why not, to suggest its power. The reference to the cathedral builders, even though it weights this appeal to the history of the Order by presuming a direct descent between the operative masons of yore and the symbolic and speculative members of Freemasonry, forms a sufficiently significant dimension in the imagination to inspire the grand lodges of the United States in their many architectural projects.

That is what basically occurred in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by virtue of the periods of great industrial, economic, and financial prosperity. In fact, this was the time when monumental Masonic buildings appeared, displaying to American society and the world an almost insolent assertiveness that is in no way inferior to that of religious structures. Quite varied in style but always colossal and imposing, these Masonic halls stood out in urban landscapes of many large American cities before the crash of 1929, as well as in sites chosen for a specific historical reference, as was the case for the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

As mentioned earlier, this monument is located not far from Mount Vernon, the plantation house where George Washington made his home. It’s near the small city of Alexandria, Virginia, facing the federal capital of Washington, D.C., which sits on the other side of the Potomac River. The novelist Dan Brown had no hesitation about seizing on these icons—the architectural expression of a humanistic philosophy of betterment—in which he found a source of inspiration surrounded by alleged mysteries that brought joy to readers seeking escape via the imagination. The success of this literature is so well known that there is no need to dwell on it. But, outside all sensationalistic and commercial exploitation, a tour of the large American cities where the most emblematic large Masonic buildings were erected would not be devoid of interest, and several tour organizers quickly smelled out the makings for a profitable undertaking.

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial, said to be built on the model of the Alexandrian Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the world, was constructed starting in 1922. Although inaugurated in 1923, its nine-story interior was not completed until 1970. It was dedicated, as its name indicates, to the first American president and a Mason, George Washington. It is more than three hundred feet tall and is neoclassical in style; it was built at the top of Shooters Hill. It includes several architectural elements of Greek inspiration as some of the capitals of the marble columns are of Doric style, some are Ionic, and some are Corinthian. In addition to the part of the building that has been set up as a museum, the monument houses a large auditorium and several temples. It welcomes numerous tourists throughout the year, mainly those following the patriotic pilgrimage to Mount Vernon, which in addition to being the place to which George Washington retired was also a major site in the life of the marquis de Lafayette. [When Lafayette was imprisoned during the French Revolution, he sent his son to live there with the president and Martha Washington. —Trans.]

The very prestigious Masonic Temple of Philadelphia, built by architect James H. Windrim in a flamboyant blend of Norman and neo-Gothic architecture, is the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. It was inaugurated in 1873 and is one of the architectural jewels of this large city on the Delaware River, which was the nation’s first capital. It houses a total of seven temples that are open to visitors when they are not being used. It is not the only lodge that is claimed to be “the largest Masonic Temple in the world,” but the fact is that this building, in close proximity to the city hall, is monumental and impressive, both because of its size and its style. It is also home to one of the richest Masonic museums in the world, which includes many rare objects in its collection.

The famous metropolis of the automobile, Detroit, Michigan, also claims the honor of being home to “the world’s largest Masonic Temple.” This imposing and extremely massive limestone construction is built in a neo-Gothic style. Its two-hundred-foot tower houses 1,037 temples and offices in its fourteen stories. It overlooks the city and resembles a cathedral but contains, in addition to many Masonic temples and the headquarters of the Sovereign College of the York Rite of the United States, no less than three theaters, the main one of which is the work of the architect George D. Mason. Public spaces, restaurants, a hotel, three ballrooms, a swimming pool, and a school confer to this complex every attribute of a large congressional center.

It is Washington, D.C.’s, pride to be home to the headquarters of the Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, which also claims the title of Mother Supreme Council of the World because of its seniority, just as London does for the obediences. The great temple, inaugurated on October 8, 1915, is located at 1733 16th Avenue and is called the House of the Temple (see the color insert, plate 7). It is the work of the architect John Russell Pope, who took as his inspiration the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which was also one of the seven wonders of the world. In addition to the departments of the jurisdiction, it contains a splendid, large temple of the Supreme Council, which is built of precious marble; several annex temples; one of the most important, if not the most important, Masonic libraries in the world; and a museum in its basement. It is a model for its expression of Masonic symbolism, which can be seen in all of the component elements inside and out, starting with the stone staircase flanked by two marble sphinxes.

The urban planning of the federal capital itself has been the subject of speculation concerning its own Masonic configuration. However, these allegations are due in some part to the rich imaginations of some people, and, contrary to certain assertions, no evidence exists to prove that Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French architect and engineer chosen by George Washington to perform this task, was truly a Freemason. Additionally, the theories claiming to find a compass and square in the plans of the original city do not stand up to objective criticism. The plan is based on principles of pure geometry applied to the topography. It is certainly easy to imagine the compass therein, but it would be quite hard to find what is alleged to depict a square, because Washington and Louisiana Avenues do not intersect as they are both interrupted on either side of the Mall. This has not prevented these fantasies from feeding the illusions of some credulous Freemasons for a long time, just like the completely gratuitous speculations surrounding other symbolic images. This would be the case for the dollar bill, on which a pyramid is overlooked by a luminous delta with an eye in the center, which is supposed to represent that of the Masonic Grand Architect of the Universe.

However, it is really the Statue of Liberty that undoubtedly carries the strongest Masonic associations—and in this instance they are incontestable—in the United States and perhaps the world. The idea behind it was born following the Civil War, and it was intended to mark the centennial of the American Revolution. The project was conceived by the French sculptor and Freemason Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi during a visit to New York. Legend has it that when he arrived, he had the vision of a woman standing on a pedestal greeting the immigrants and welcoming them to a land that offered them a new life of freedom. The construction was jointly realized with the French engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel and was the result of fund drives to which French and American Freemasons made large contributions. The bronze statue, strengthened by a metal structure, is the preeminent symbol of America as a land of welcome and a beacon of freedom in the world, but it also forms evidence of the commitment of the Masonic order to continue to carry the values of the Enlightenment against the forces of darkness (see color insert, plate 14).

The color insert in this book includes photos of some of the most famous American Masonic buildings, which often offer visitors guided tours (in those cases when economic necessity and hard times have not forced them to rent out these spaces for public conferences or concerts to ensure that they have the resources necessary for the upkeep of such large properties). See plates 7 through 13.

The New Masonic Temple in Saint Louis, Missouri, was built in 1926 by the architectural partnership of Eames and Young, who took the Parthenon for their inspiration and adorned the temple with pillars topped by Ionic capitals. However, the massive corpulence of this substantial edifice is but a remote reminder of the elegance of the Acropolis. It is rather a prototype for the huge neoclassical buildings for which large American cities have an inordinate fondness. In Baltimore, Maryland, located twenty miles north of the federal capital, we also find a proud but modest temple (see color insert, plate 13) that presents a complete contrast to the imposing mass of the Masonic Temple Building in Chicago, which figures among the most conspicuous and renowned examples of Masonic architectural achievements in the United States. The Masonic buildings of Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and New York also appear in this photographic overview, which makes no claim to being exhaustive.

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