- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial, the impossible-to-miss 333-foot building on the western edge of Old Town Alexandria, boasts the best view in town. On a clear day, visitors can see the Washington Monument in the District and the wooded pastures of Oxon Hill Farm in Maryland.

The memorial serves up more than just panoramic views from its ninth floor, however.

“I see it as offering lessons in art history, American history and the history of Freemasonry,” says Harry Shaffer, tour-guide director at the memorial.

Freemasonry is the oldest and largest fraternal order in the world, he says. It started with organized guilds of stonemasons who constructed stately structures throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. It is not a Christian organization, but members are expected to profess belief in a god, of any faith, he says. The words Mason and Freemason are used interchangeably.

The memorial, built in the 1930s, houses several exhibits on the most famous of American Freemasons, George Washington, who was made a Mason at age 20. The memorial, which is home to a working Masonic lodge, Alexandria No. 22, also holds exhibits about the different groups within Masonry, including the Shriners, as well as artwork by muralist Allyn Cox.

Mr. Cox’s colorful creations adorn the walls of most of the nine floors of the memorial, but the largest ones — 18-by-46 feet — cover the walls of Memorial Hall, the space visitors see first.

One mural depicts Washington laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol in 1793. The other shows a scene at Christ Church In Philadelphia during a St. John’s Day celebration in 1778. Memorial Hall is also home to a 17-foot bronze statue of the nation’s first president.

Students of architecture might find it interesting that the 40-foot columns in the hall are a mix of the Ionic, Corinthian and Doric styles, that the entrance is a Parthenon look-alike and that the tower itself is modeled after the ancient lighthouse in Alexandria, Egypt.

The architect was Harvey Wiley Corbett.

The lighthouse has symbolic connotations, Mr. Shaffer says. George Washington was a guiding light to Masonry, and Masonry was a guiding light to the first president, to whom several exhibits are devoted, including the George Washington Museum, the Replica Lodge Room and Assembly Hall. To see these spaces, visitors must take a guided tour, available several times a day. There is no charge for the tour, which takes up to 90 minutes.

Museum items include a leather field trunk Washington used throughout the Revolutionary War, his family Bible and two of his military sabers.

“The museum is one of the most popular destinations for visitors who are not Masons,” Mr. Shaffer says. “We have things from Washington here that you can’t find even in Mount Vernon.”

The Replica Lodge Room portrays the lodge room in Alexandria’s City Hall that was used from 1802 to the mid-1900s. It includes the original chair Washington used when he was master of the lodge and a portrait of the first president that’s unlike any other.

“This is said to be the most realistic portrait of Washington,” Mr. Shaffer says. “George Washington told [artist William J.] Williams, ‘Paint me as I am,’ and he did. You see all the scars and a big mole,” he says.

Other artifacts in this room include Washington’s bedroom clock, which was stopped at 10:20 p.m. Dec. 14, 1799, the exact moment of his death. Of historical significance are Washington’s Masonic apron and a silver trowel, both used by the president at the Capitol cornerstone ceremony.

A third space devoted to Washington history is Assembly Hall, which features dioramas depicting the president’s life. At the far end of the hall is a mechanical George Washington that greets visitors at the push of a button.

“Kids are either scared to death or they love it,” says Mr. Shaffer, who frequently gives tours to elementary school classes.

The rest of the memorial showcases different “bodies,” or groups within, Freemasonry. The Shriners, for example, are a body of Freemasonry, and their exhibit features their charitable work. The Shriners operate 22 hospitals nationwide that provide free orthopedic and burn care to children age 18 and younger.

Charity is a cornerstone of Freemasonry, and the 1.6 million Masons of America give about $3 million a day to charity, Mr. Shaffer says.

“We believe charity should be a big part of life — a lifelong commitment,” he says.

He says he hopes visitors — of whom there are about 30,000 a year — will enjoy the artwork, the unique building and the Washington artifacts. Above all, he hopes they will understand the important role of Freemasonry in the nation’s history.

“What George Washington learned through Masonry helped form the beginning of this country,” he says. “And did you know that 13 of the signers of the Constitution were Masons?”

WHENYOU GO:

Location: George Washington Masonic National Memorial, 101 Callahan Drive, Alexandria.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Exit 176B toward Alexandria. Merge onto Duke Street. Turn left onto Callahan Drive.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Christmas days. Free guided tours, which take up to 90 minutes and are required for most exhibit spaces, are available at 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. and at 1, 2:15 and 3:30 p.m.

Parking: Free.

Admission and guided tours: Free.

Information: 703/683-2007 or www.gwmemorial.org.

Notes:

• The museum is open to children of all ages, but organizers say some knowledge of American history is recommended.

• The museum is a short walk from Old Town Alexandria, which features plenty of shops and eateries.

• The closest Metro stop is King Street, on the Yellow and Blue lines.

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