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