The George Washington Masonic Memorial is superior to the Washington Monument in many ways. One is that it’s open. “Here’s our earthquake damage,” deadpanned the guide on a recent tour. Inside a display case, a little clay pot had toppled over.
The Mall’s sleek obelisk also lacks the GWMM’s patchwork grandeur. The memorial, which looms over King Street in Alexandria, came together in fits and starts between 1910 and 1970 because the Masons didn’t want to go into debt. (Proof they don’t covertly run the federal government.) Masons love mixing and matching ancient architectural styles — chiefly those that involved building stuff out of stone, as the name implies — and the tower’s exterior references the Parthenon and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt.
Backstory: Freemasonry is a fraternity dedicated to self-improvement, good works and arcane rituals. It (probably) arose in the late 16th and early 17th centuries out of Scottish stoneworkers’ guilds. George Washington joined in 1752, when he was 20.
Inside: The ground floor is devoted to Shriners, a type of Mason known for their children’s hospitals and fezzes. George Washington-centric murals, artifacts and placards dominate the main and fourth floors. From there up, the tour skews from the familiar, as do the two elevators, which run inward at 7.5-degree angles to accommodate the narrowing structure. So, you go from the clock stopped at Washington’s deathbed to a replica Ark of the Covenant, on five. The real Ark is said to have resided inside Solomon’s Temple, which was built on orders of the famed Old Testament king and has special significance to the Masons. The ninth and top floors offer the requisite stunning views of D.C.
Gift Shop: Trinkets, books and Mason gear. Shoppers snapped up license-plate frames bearing the slogan “2B1 ASK1.” That’s the not-so-secret first step toward becoming a Mason: Just ask. (And be male.)George Washington Masonic Memorial, 101 Callahan Drive, Alexandria; 703-683-2007. About two blocks from the King Street Metro station. Abundant parking on-site.