House of the Temple: Masonic Museum and Library
The Sphinxes of 16th Street

House of the Temple
1733 16th St., NW
Washington, DC 20009-3103
Phone: 202-232-3579
Hours: M-F 8am-3:30 pm
First Saturday of the month: 10am-3pm

Virtual tour:

 Hear a "Mondo DC" radio broadcast about the House of the Temple, as aired on WAMU-FM's "Metro Connection" program, January 11, 2008:

For a fraternal order with a sinister reputation for secret geopolitical deals sealed by secret handshakes, the Masons sure have an open door policy to their temples. Here at the headquarters building of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Southern Jurisdiction, on 16th Street, NW, in DC, they so love to brag about the grandiose architecture and interior design of their House of the Temple that they'll usher all comers through their grand meeting halls, describing the intricate symbolism of every tile, sculpture, corner and stone. They so love to show off the loot they've collected over the years that they've even put all their Scottish Rite regalia out for show. They've stocked a museum, several libraries, and multiple exhibit halls just to make sure you stay longer. You're likely to find a trip to the House of the Temple so fascinating you'll be thinking about freemasonry for a long time after. But likely in a good way. 

The Southern Masons are rightfully proud of the architecture of their headquarters, as it's long been acknowledged as a high water mark of the American Neo-Classical style. The architect, John Russell Pope, modeled the building on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World," and the success of his new building earned him commissions to design the National Gallery of Art, National Archives, and the Jefferson Memorial. Completed in 1915, the House of the Temple has been open to the general public for tours ever since.

The wonders of the temple begin outside with the two marble sphinxes you encounter at the top of the stairs leading into the building. Like every feature of the building, these beasts are Highly Symbolic. Note that the one on the right has its eyes half closed, and the other has its eyes wide open; the former represents Wisdom, and the second Power. Perhaps more meaningful to the average visitor is the fact that each one was carved from a solid piece of stone and weighs 17 tons. The building's exterior is surrounded by 33 pillars, for the highest Masonic degree; 32 would fit symmetrically on the four-sided building, meaning that the odd pillar had to be squeezed in somewhere. Perhaps Dan Brown can work that conundrum into his next novel.

If you like pillars, marble, and the imagery of Ancient Egypt, you'll find the Atrium well-suited to your taste. And of course, everything carries a Deep Meaning. (The excellent virtual tour explains all that stuff quite well. There are wooden chairs with a double-headed eagle design, a beautiful frieze in Egyptian style, and bronze lamps incorporating the head of Hermes. Don't forget to look up. The ceiling has been elaborately painted in Egyptian motifs. The large Egyptian figures, one male and the other female, were carved on the spot from solid pieces of black marble. The large marble banquet table in the center of the room holds a bowl full of free goodies--compasses and heavy commemorative coins on my recent visit. These free souvenirs are further proof that the Masons are truly glad you stopped by.

The Supreme Council, 33, must have decided that their ornate building would not attract enough foot traffic, so they opened the first public library in the District of Columbia here. Among the rarities in the collection is one of four surviving copies of the first Masonic book printed in America--a job performed by Benjamin Franklin in 1734; and the Ahiman Rezon, a handbook of Masonic law. And all the books from Abraham Lincoln's private library, kept in a special corner of the reading room. The Masonic library houses 250,000 volumes and is still open as a research library. Even if you don't feel like cracking a book, the library's a beautiful place to visit, with dark hardwood shelves and fixtures, displays of Masonic history, and a curving layout that makes for wonderful scholarly wandering. There's the feel of those old school libraries you might see in a Harry Potter film.

There are two other libraries in the building. The International Library houses 4,000 volumes from 68 different countries, including Zambia, Malta, and Germany. The Robert Burns Library was donated by a former Director of the National Botanical Gardens, who assembled a collection of published works by and about the Scottish poet that is exceeded only by the Burns Collection of Glasgow. The Burns books are set off in their own room, as proscribed by the executor of that director's estate, Andrew Carnegie. And yes, Burns was a Mason.

These book shelves are swell and everything, but the truly amazing stuff is housed in several rooms arranged along a curved passageway lined with portraits of Masonic heroes, including Will Rogers, Gene Autry, John Phillip Sousa, John Glenn, and Bob Dole. Three other Masonic heroes are honored in their own exhibit halls. First among them is the J. Edgar Hoover Collection, which displays photos of Hoover with Shirley Temple, Joe DiMaggio, boxer Jack Dempsey, and Edward G. Robinson. They even have Hoover's baby pictures! And his bronzed baby shoe! His desk holds down the center of the room, surrounded by memorabilia representing his religious, professional and fraternal activities, includding three fezzes. Even a picture of J. Edgar in a fez!

The Burl Ives Collection covers this proud Mason's career from child actor to folk singer and movie star with album jackets and photos. His hobbies are represented in wooden sailor figurines and a model sloop, intricately carved Chinese furniture, well worn walking sticks, and his Masonic fezzes. There's also some fine turquoise jewelry, including a wild necklace incorporating bear claws. Sound and video clips remind you of Burl's accomplishments as an entertainer, but the small statue of the Snowman who narrated the classic TV Christmas story "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" really puts things in perspective. You can't beat this room for pop culture kitsch. 

The Albert Pike Museum commemorates a 19th century Grand Commander of the Supreme Council who also served his country as a jurist, soldier, poet, and scholar of Masonry. He also seems to have collected meerschaum pipes, some over three feet long!

The nearby Americanism Museum is a shrine to American Freedom, represented in relics including a foundation stone from the White House, a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, a fragment of the Apollo space capsule's heat shield, and a jet fighter pilot's flight uniform. Colonial era artifacts include powder horns with Masonic emblems, long rifles, and a fireplace toaster! Random stuff no one could bear to throw away, or evidence of the Masonic Matrix controlling our daily lives? You decide.

There are even more random goodies sprinkled around, such as the shiny and valuable stuff given to past Sovreign Grand Commanders, the Cornerstone of Freedom, and the amazingly ornate and significant Temple Room upstairs. You gotta see it to believe it!