You can't miss the 333-foot high structure, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, towering over Alexandria. But if you don't know the story behind the Freemasons, Shriners and the rest, you may miss a lot taking the tour.
As docents shuttle visitors to all seven floors of the tower, each containing one room belonging to a different body of the Masons, the result can be quite disorienting for a neophyte. The memorial offers scheduled, hour-long tours throughout the day; if you arrive late, often you can tag along, but this may only add to the confusion. Anyone can roam the first two floors, including two lodge rooms, without a guide.
The 1932 building, modeled after a lighthouse near Rome, is foremost a memorial to George Washington, who was named the first master of Alexandria Lodge in 1788. Beyond the portico entrance, in Memorial Hall, stands a giant bronze statue of Washington, flanked by two large murals depicting the U.S. president. On the fourth floor, the George Washington Museum displays many of his personal items, including a field trunk he carried with him during the Revolutionary War.
Despite the lack of information on the tour regarding Masons -- a term used interchangeably with "Freemason" -- this is not a group shrouded in secrecy. As one Mason put it, it is an organization with secrets, not a secret organization.
You have to be a man to be a Mason and you also must have a belief in a "Supreme Being." After passing three stages of initiation, a member can then become a Master Mason. Beyond that, a member can join a Scottish or York Rite. Only then is he eligible to become a Shriner. While Freemasonry (which may date back to medieval stonemasons but only went public in the 1700s) historically has brought men of different classes together, dues do increase as men move up the ladder of orders.
Those dues support each branch's charity, such as the 22 Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children all over North America, which you learn about in the Shriners Room. Other rooms on the tower tour, including the Grotto Archives Room, the Royal Arch Room and the Tall Cedars Room, have murals depicting symbolic rituals, and information about the medical or educational charities. Several rooms feature dioramas connected to the building of King Solomon's temple, tied again to themes of stonemasonry. But even if you don't know a thing about the Masons, you can still enjoy the panoramic vistas, spanning for miles over the capital and Virginia; from the ninth-floor observation deck -- enjoy the breeze, too.
-- Margaret Hutton
While the grounds may be used for sledding during great snowy days, individuals do so at their own risk.
The memorial staff ask those who come to sled not to park on the grounds but rather in sanctioned parking facilities.