A Firm Foundation for Freemasonry’s Memorial to Washington

October 13, 2018

A Firm Foundation for Freemasonry’s Memorial to Washington

Eleven years after its first organizational meeting, on February 22, 1922, the Memorial Association formally approved the design, and authorized the construction of, a George Washington National Memorial Temple.

Through the rest of 1922 and most of 1923, the focus turned toward planning the Memorial’s Masonic cornerstone ceremony and building the foundation for a cornerstone.

Authorizing the Construction

The task of raising more than $2.5 million (equal to $36.1 million in current dollars) was the least of worries. President Louis Watres (Past Grand Master of Pennsylvania), and his brother Masons were successful businessmen, politicians and professionals who knew America had recovered from the post-World War One depression and was entering an era of great prosperity.

Freemasonry was also growing. Between 1918 and 1922 Freemasonry added over 800,000 Master Masons, and between 1922 and 1930 membership would grow another 600,000 members to over 3 million. Such growth guaranteed not just the completion of the George Washington Memorial, but scores of new Masonic temples, homes, hospitals, and other projects throughout the nation.

With the full confidence of the Association, a firm budget and construction drawings in hand, the Memorial Executive committee met in April 1922. The first order of business was to hire J. Claude Keiper as full-time Secretary-Treasurer of the Association. His hire shaped the Association’s management for decades.

Keiper (1869–1944) was an attorney and served as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia in 1910. He attended the Association’s first meeting and attended every annual afterwards. In 1921, he succeeded Lawrence H. Lee as Secretary, and in 1922 assumed the Treasurer’s duties when John Cowles resigned to become Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction. As Secretary-Treasurer, Keiper served as the as chief executive officer. After the Memorial’s dedication in 1932, he continued in that position until his death in 1944—a total of thirty-one years of service.

It was Keiper’s responsibility to meet the long-range target of finishing the Memorial’s construction no later than 1932: the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. On paper, ten years appeared as ample time to finish the 333-foot memorial temple. The Scottish Rite House of the Temple was built between 1911 and 1915, and the National Cathedral, also in Washington, D.C., begun in 1906 and consecrated its chapel in 1912. But the Scottish Rite gathered resources from its national membership. The Episcopal Cathedral solicited support from a spectrum of Christian denominations. The George Washington Masonic Memorial had to earn revenue not just through the endorsement, but the active support of U.S. Grand Lodges.

The Association needed more than vigorous cash-flow, and construction also demanded men and materials. A host of laborers, iron workers, stone masons, and other craftsmen had to be marshaled atop Shuter’s Hill. Erection of the Memorial meant securing vast amounts of cement, iron, stone, and wood and overcoming many engineering challenges. Lastly, and unlike the builders of Solomon’s Temple, the Memorial’s workers faced rain, snow, storms, and blazing heat.

To make this all happen, the Association selected the Cranford Paving Company of Washington, D.C., as general contractor. The two Cranford brothers, Joseph H. and Percy, would oversee all construction operations. The company began soon after the Civil War by their father, H.L. Cranford. Incorporated in 1889, the company did primarily asphalt and concrete work. It was well-placed for success as the growing number of automobiles required ever smoother and reliable roads and bridges. The Cranfords did their first work paving Pennsylvania Avenue and in 1907 they built the Connecticut Avenue Bridge over Rock Creek. During the World War, it built highways, docks, railroads and other project in the Washington, D.C., area. It also helped the Cranfords’ cause that both brothers, as well as most of its senior management and engineers, were Freemasons.

Preparing for the Cornerstone

The other great project the executive Committee addressed in April 1922 was to select a date for the Memorial’s Masonic cornerstone ceremony and parade. While in some ways just as complex as construction, American Freemasons had more than fifty years of experience. Dating all the way back to the U.S. Capitol in 1793, Masons were famous for cornerstone ceremonies. And since at least 1873, when the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania dedicated its temple, through the many Knight Templars’ triennial grand encampments, American Freemasons could be counted on to hold grand parades and great public events.

Indeed, one member of the executive committee suggested holding the Memorial’s ceremony in conjunction with the Imperial Shrine convention scheduled for June 1923. Although convenient for the many Shriners among Grand Lodge officers, the idea was dismissed. Watres saw an incompatibility between Shriners’ mirthful parades and the dignity Freemasonry must pay to Worshipful Brother George Washington as the Father of the Nation.

Appointed to organize the cornerstone ceremony was Charles H. Callahan (1858–1944). He joined Alexandria-Washington Lodge № 22 in 1904, and served as the Lodge Master 1909 to 1910. It was his vision that organized the first meeting of the Memorial Association in 1910. Callahan also purchased the first plots of Shuters Hill. In 1913, he published Washington: The Man and Freemason, which earned the Association’s first significant funds. Since 1898, Callahan had served as Alexandria’s tax commissioner, so he knew how to coordinate all government officials and organizations required for the great event.

But more than local connections, Callahan was also a Grand Warden in the Grand Lodge of Virginia and in line to be Grand Master in 1924–25. Through the Grand Lodge he could communicate directly with all Grand Lodges and numerous Masonic grand bodies and organizations.

On June 5, 1922 Louis Watres, Percy Cranford, Claude Keiper, Charles Callahan and others broke ground on Shuters Hill. In September work began in earnest to level the hill. The Cranford Co. graded the hill down from its peak of 138 feet to an elevation of 107.

In the meantime, architect H.W. Corbett had to design an anchor to place the massive temple into the hill’s dense clay base. His solution was a steel-reinforced solid concrete wafer spanning more than 150 feet due east and west and 100 feet north and south. The wafer tapered from 9½ feet at its center to 2 feet at its edge. The entire process required a total of 8,794 cubic yards of concrete with gravel aggregate and 719 tons of steel.

To accomplish the ambitious pouring program, the Cranford Company built a concrete plant and chuting tower on-site. Starting on November 6, 1922, workers continuously poured for 302 hours into six slab sections. The center section was left to set for seven days before the forms were removed and the outer sections poured. This method created construction joints that also acted as expansion joints in the completed building. The smallest slab section was 401 cubic yards and the largest was 696 cubic yards. Once the slab had set, workers laid a foundation base over the slab composed of Conway pink granite. By December 7, 1922, the main foundation walls, the girders for the entrance steps, south terrace and the north terrace foundations were all in place.

With construction well in hand, but stopped for the winter, the Memorial Association once again held its February meeting. As reviewed in a previous article, “Breaking Ground for the Memorial Temple” (Vol. 22, No. 1), it was at this 1923 meeting that President Watres convinced the Association to spend an additional $500,000 to sheath the entire Memorial in New Hampshire granite.

In twelve short months the Memorial had taken root within Shuter’s Hill and began it long growth skyward. In the coming eight months, all of American Freemasonry would turn toward Alexandria in anticipation of the cornerstone ceremony fixed for early November, 1923.

Mark A. Tabbert is the Director of Archives & Exhibits of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association.
Next: Preparing to Lay the Memorial’s Cornerstone