On July 15, 1922, thousands of men and women (but mostly men) crowded around an ancient oak on a miraculously undeveloped parcel of land at Connecticut and Florida avenues NW. They were Freemasons with their spouses, and they had an audacious plan in mind. They vowed to construct one of the nation’s largest Masonic complexes on nine acres of woods north of Dupont Circle. It was called the Dean tract and it included the Treaty Oak, said by some to have once sheltered George Washington.
If you’ve ever been in that neighborhood, you will have noticed there is no Masonic complex. Instead, there is the Washington Hilton. To Chris Ruli, a historian and Mason who researches the District’s Masonic history, it’s a story of what might have been. Washington is full of — or, rather, empty of — similar grand edifices that were planned but never built.
The Masons weren’t thinking small in the 1920s. One of that day’s speakers said the world — “sadly shattered and groping” — needed Freemasonry, which would help reconstruct civilization. But first they had some constructing to do.
The pressing issue at the time, Ruli said, was that the local Masons had outgrown their existing headquarters. Built in 1908 at the corner of 13th Street and New York Avenue NW, the building served as a sort of clubhouse for Mason-related events. There were close to 20,000 Masons in Washington and the city was awash in their clubs: Masons who worked at the White House, or at the Treasury, or as steelworkers or in other jobs.
“They needed a place for all these people to meet and congregate,” Ruli said. “Instead of buying an old building, they thought, 'Let's build something new.'”
The Dean tract had been owned by the Woman’s National Foundation, which had planned to put its own headquarters there. Before that, city leaders had hoped to purchase the land for use as a park. It was the Masons who got it, at a cost of $900,000. In almost no time, local Masons raised a million dollars for the project.
The ceremony on that July day a century ago marked the Masons receiving the deed for the tract, which they soon dubbed Temple Heights. The committee in charge of building a Masonic temple there considered various designs before settling on one by Harvey W. Corbett, the architect responsible for the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, which was slowly rising in Alexandria.
For Tower Heights, Corbett envisioned a set of buildings to be used by different Masonic groups, including the Order of the Eastern Star, the Shriners, and the York and Scottish Rites. Only White Masons would use the facilities. No Prince Hall Masons — the order founded in 1784 for Black Masons — were invited to participate, Ruli said.
Corbett tapped artist and architect Hugh Ferriss to create dramatic illustrations of his design. Wrote Ruli in an article for the Voice of Freemasonry magazine: “In his drawings, the Corbett-Ferriss complex towered above the District of Columbia like a modern-day Acropolis, and great halls surrounded a giant Grant Lodge Temple with dramatic flood lights illuminating the hill as a beacon for visiting Masons.”
This was a noir temple, a comic-book concoction that included vast flights of stairs and an observation deck that took advantage of the site’s already high elevation. It would have afforded great views of the city.
But there was a problem: The design ignored the city’s strict height restrictions. The Masons were well connected in government and they urged Congress to give the design a waiver. The plans would also need approval from by the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Park and Planning Commission.
Even though the Masons would eventually get approval for their design, with some modifications, in October 1929, something else intervened.
“The stock market crash effectively course-corrected everything,” Ruli said.
A hilltop Masonic complex seemed a needless luxury at a time when the focus was on helping fellow Masons survive the cratering economy. Members decided to make do with their 13th Street building, as old and crowded as it may have been.
“Basically, the acquisition of Temple Heights removed any interest in the fraternity to build new things or build grand things,” Ruli said.
In 1947, the Masons sold the former Dean tract to a syndicate of developers for $915,000. They held on to their 13th Street building until 1982, when, pressed for cash, they sold it to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Though the grand Masonic complex never came to be, it lives on in the name of something at 1921 Florida Ave. NW: the Temple Heights Post Office.
If the Masons had been successful, Washington would look different today.
“It certainly would have made an indelible mark on the skyline,” Ruli said. “When you fly into DCA, you see this one big, tall Masonic tower in Alexandria. Imagine going into the District and seeing another big Masonic tower.”
It would have served as a symbol of the fraternal organization, whose very name and rituals are based on building with stone.
“They wanted to find the highest point and build the highest temple,” Ruli said. “They wanted to make it seem, ‘This is the progress of the fraternity.’ One of the ironies is, if they did build this massive complex to themselves, I don’t think they’d have been able to keep it.”
The cost of maintaining it would have outstripped the cost of building it.
Next week: Frank Lloyd Wright takes a crack at Temple Heights.