Friday, January 29, 2010;
A virgin sacrifice, a murdered pontiff, a lost symbol: That may be what you're hoping to learn about on a tour of the towering George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria. What you'll learn instead is the Freemasons' love of all things George Washington.
"George Washington epitomized what the Freemasons wanted to be," said tour guide Stephanie Blaher as she started the tour in Memorial Hall. Washington joined the Freemasons when he was 20 years old and in his retirement served as the charter master of the Alexandria lodge.
Four massive marble columns line each side of the dimly lit hall. Behind them are large murals showcasing Washington by Allyn Cox. (Cox's work can also be seen in the U.S. Capitol.) The focal point of the hall is a 17-foot, seven-ton statue of Washington holding a gavel in one hand and a hat in the other.
Parts of the movie "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" were filmed at the memorial, but the building feels far less steeped in history than you might imagine. The building's cornerstone was laid in 1923, and the last room wasn't completed until 1983. If you ask your tour guide to explain some of the Freemasons' symbols, her explanation is likely to be far less romantic than a novelist would conjure. The Freemasons date back to the 1600s in Europe. They used symbols, she said, because at the time many people couldn't read.
What the 300-foot-tall memorial does have and what makes it worth the trip is the view from the top. You can see the National Cathedral, the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol and National Harbor from the observation deck on the ninth floor. Another cool thing about the memorial: Since the top is more narrow than the bottom, the elevators ascend diagonally at a 7.5-degree angle. You can feel yourself leaning to the side of the elevator as you go up.
The tour will take you to most of the floors where you will find small, bare and fairly undistinguished rooms with low ceilings. The eighth floor feels like a chapel, and the larger second floor is all about George Washington -- hey, his name is on the building! The second floor contains some rather bizarre, random artifacts: a pin made from the wood of Washington's coffin, a knee buckle worn by a Freemason at Washington's funeral; a strand of Washington's hair. Learn Washington's last words before he died at the age of 67. " 'Tis well." The same could be said for his Masonic Memorial.
-- Moira E. McLaughlin
Where is it? 101 Callahan Dr., Alexandria
When is it? Through March 31, hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. every day except Sunday, noon-4. Access to the upper floors is by tour only. Tours are 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
How much is it? Free!
If you have more than three hours: Check out the Art League at 105 N. Union St., Alexandria, where printmaker Kathleen Stafford displays her work inspired by her time in West Africa.
Want more about the Masons? The House of the Temple of the Scottish Rite on 16th Street -- which has a prominent role in Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" -- is open Monday-Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours there are $7.33 for adults, $3.33 for students and seniors, and free for kids younger than 18. (If you don't get the joke about 33 cents, your guide will be happy to explain it to you.)