The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unlock the secrets of the Freemasons — or at least gawk at their strange costumes — in this Alexandria museum

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial looks like a midcentury mid-rise was dropped on the Parthenon. (Sadie Dingfelder)

“Is It True What They Say About Freemasonry?” That question was on my mind even before I saw a book with that title lying open on a table at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. This lesser-known monument to Washington and museum of Freemason history is a modest tower in Alexandria — only 333 feet tall compared with the Washington Monument’s 555. It’s not that old — ground was broken for it in 1922 and it wasn’t completed until the 1970s — and, unlike D.C.’s many free attractions, the Masonic memorial costs $15 to visit, so I wasn’t surprised that I was the only person on the 9:30 a.m. tour one recent Monday.

“Is it usually pretty quiet here?” I asked the person checking me in, who later turned out to be my tour guide.

“It can get pretty busy in the summer,” he replied. In warm months, busloads of Masons visit the memorial, he said.

“I must admit, I don’t know much about Freemasons,” I said, which prompted my guide to launch into a short history of the group.

“It’s basically a fraternal organization,” he concluded. “They do a lot of service and charity work.”

“Oh, so it’s like the Rotary Club, but with costumes and secret handshakes,” I said.

We were standing in the memorial’s great hall, an impressive columned space featuring a giant bronze statue of George Washington. Washington, my guide said, was a Freemason, as were many Revolutionary War soldiers. Then he pointed out another image of Washington on a mural on the wall of the Grand Hall, showing the president at the laying of the U.S. Capitol cornerstone.

“Remember that trowel, because we’re going to see the real one next,” he said.

In a room adjacent to the main hall, we found it. “This ceremonial trowel was also used in the laying of the cornerstone of the Supreme Court and this building,” my guide said.

That struck me as pretty nifty — especially since the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center only has a replica of this trowel on display. As it turns out, the Masonic memorial has an impressive collection of George Washington artifacts. By the time I left, I’d seen a Washington family Bible, a chair owned by the president, a (rather unflattering) portrait made during his lifetime, and the watch his physician used to mark the time of his death.

The memorial also houses a museum of Masonic history, and we’d just arrived on a floor devoted to that when a muffled voice emanated from my guide’s walkie-talkie. He rushed off to fetch a late-arriving tourist, leaving me alone in a room full of creepy mannequins attired in the costumes of various Freemason subgroups and affiliated societies, including Shriners’ fezzes, Arabic-looking turbans, militaristic uniforms and one costume with a jeweled breastplate, an imitation of vestments worn by ancient Israelite priests.

I found this to be a fascinating glimpse into a less-woke era, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t find any explanatory text about why these groups of (I imagine) white men wore Middle Eastern-ish garb, and whether similar costumes are still used today.

Scattered around the mannequins were displays of random club ephemera — plus a few inexplicable objects, including a jaunty bobblehead doll of the controversial Christian figure Jacques de Molay, a monk who fought in the Crusades and was later sentenced to death. De Molay’s medieval order, the Knights Templar, inspired the modern-day Knights Templar — a Christian-focused subgroup of Freemasons, my guide explained after returning with a mysterious man in a trenchcoat.

I asked trenchcoat man what brought him to the Masonic memorial, and he said he was in D.C. for meetings and had only a few hours to look around. That struck me as an unconvincing story: If you’re in downtown D.C. for meetings, why schlep to Alexandria to see a little-known memorial?

“I bet he’s a Mason,” I whispered to the guide. (Masons are famously shy about admitting they’re Masons, which only adds to the mystique.)

If I’m right, he’s an increasingly rare breed. Freemason membership has been in decline since the 1960s, according to a chart on display in the museum’s basement. “Civic life declined as people spent more time alone in front of a television or computer screen,” the accompanying text explains. Fair enough, but I’m betting that the Masons’ fraught racial history and continued exclusion of women have also contributed to their diminishing relevance.

I mention this because the Masonic memorial may be on its way to becoming just that: a memorial to a bygone organization, where powerful men once gathered to socialize, plan charitable work and wear Orientalist costumes. Perhaps a lot of this is best left in the past, but it seems to me — a person who spends way too much time alone, in front of a computer — that there’s something here worth bringing into the future.

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