A Temple within a Garden

October 13, 2020

A Temple within a Garden

In 1916, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association purchased 28 acres of the eastern slope of Shuters Hill from the City of Alexandria.

The next year the Association’s annual report described why the hill was selected as the site for the Memorial:

On every hand the view stretches away for miles and the panorama, near and distant, including places, objects, and landmarks that are indissoluble associated with our country’s history and that are calculated to arouse the enthusiasm and inspire the zeal of all who appreciate American citizenship and glory in the achievements of our fathers.

Although the Association continued to acquire more land around the hill, its efforts after 1916 were focused on securing the funds to begin construction of the memorial temple. It would not be until 1921 that Board Member Andrew Randell (PGM, Texas) proposed hiring a landscape architect.

After some discussion, Melvin M. Johnson (PGM, Massachusetts) volunteered to contact the preeminent landscape architectural firm in the nation, Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts. Motivated to ensure mutual supporting designs, Johnson secured Olmsted’s services before the Association selected the memorial’s architect, Harvey Wiley Corbett.

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) is considered the father of landscape architecture who innumerable designs include New York’s Central Park, the 1893 Chicago Columbia Exposition, and Stanford University. In 1898, his sons John Charles (1852–1920) and Frederick, Jr., established the Olmsted Brothers firm. By 1930 the firm employed more than sixty designers and had received over four thousand commissions.

In September 1921, Olmsted Associate Architect E.C. Whiting visited Shuters Hill. After inspecting the hill’s natural contours he recommended the Memorial be sited on a southeast axis. By locating it on the “round nose of the hill,” he felt the Memorial would be better appreciated from both the bottom of the hill and from a great distance. Such an orientation would also direct the views south from Memorial down the Potomac River.

The Association’s executive committee quickly rejected this southeast orientation for several reasons. The Memorial was the inspiration of the brothers of Alexandria-Washington Lodge № 22, and specifically Past Master Charles Callahan. The Memorial must face toward, and overlook, George Washington’s Alexandria. Regardless of the better vistas, the Memorial would be directly looking at a huge railroad yard, with round houses, machine shops, and supply dumps. Lastly, and most obviously, “all Masonic temples are, or should be, situated due east and west.”

In October 1921, Olmsted Associated Architect Carl Rust Parker (1882–1966) replaced E.C. Whiting. Born in Andover, Massachusetts, Parker was graduated from Phillips Academy in 1901, and began at Olmsted Brothers as a draftsman. In 1910 he moved to Portland, Maine, where he started his own landscape architectural firm. While there he joined Casco Masonic Lodge № 36 in Yarmouth. Although quite successful, he closed his firm and rejoined Olmsted Brothers in 1919. He was a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and in 1950 became a partner in the firm before retiring in 1961.

During the fall of 1921 and early winter of 1922, as Corbett finished his preliminary designs of the Memorial, a detailed topographic survey of Shuters Hill was completed. At the February 1922 annual meeting, both Corbett’s memorial and Parker’s landscape designs were presented to the Memorial Association.

As hoped the two architects’ plans supported each other. Corbett’s “step-back neo-classical lighthouse” was reflected in Parker’s landscaped terraced hill. As Corbett’s memorial stacked three smaller temples upon a broad plinth, Parker sculped the hill into a series of broad landings down to Alexandria’s King Street basin. The depth and rise of each terrace were in proportion to Corbett’s memorial. The centered walkway climbed flights of stairs as the tower stepped to its peak though smaller temples. Parker also chose a snaking driveway from the bottom the hill to the front of the Memorial, rather than a concealed entrance up west King Street.

Although Parker’s and Corbett’s unified design was enthusiastically approved by the Memorial Association, their collaboration quickly ended. Like many creative and ambitious people, they competed for the Association’s money. Through 1922 and 1923 as both men refined their designs and the work was taken in hand, friction between the men increased. Eventually Parker turned to Consulting Architect Charles Osgood. As an architect of several Masonic temples across country, Osgood understood the conflict and was able to articulate Parker’s concerns to the Association’s executive committee.

Fortunately in 1922 and 1923 the Association financial resources were great and growing. By August of 1923, Parker finished his landscape plans. While his early designs focused on small trees and shrubs spotted throughout the grounds, his later deigns added extensive shrubs and plantings along the terraces to highlight the steps. He also added a few selective larger trees and groves to provide depth to his garden and scale to the memorial temple.

On June 5, 1922, President Watres and Charles Callahan broke ground on Schuter’s Hill. The simple ceremony was witnessed by city officials, contractors, brethren from Alexandria-Washington Lodge № 22 and other local lodges. Sixteen months later more than 12,000 American Freemasons participated in the cornerstone laying of the Memorial. In the interim, a small army of men, mules and machines transformed the hill. Together they excavated a total of 86,988 cubic yards of soil, sub-graded 1,000 linear feet and 2,000 square yards of walkway, laid 3,000 linear feet of drainage tiles, and 800 cubic yards of brick to complete the lower steps.

Although landscaping continued after the 1923, the cost of Corbett’s temple began to demand more and more of the Association’s funds. Through the 1920s Parker’s landscape slowly grew with every tree and shrub, but his 1923 master plan did not.

Parker’s frustration with Corbett returned in 1928 with the imperative to dedicate the Memorial during the 1932 national bicentennial celebration of George Washington birth. He angrily wrote to Association Secretary-Treasurer, Claude Keiper, insisting his plan be pushed forward or the grounds, grass, walkways, and plantings would not come to fruition for the dedication. Unfortunately, Parker’s worse fears happened and with the 1929 Stock Market Crash, nearly all work on the grounds stopped.

On May 12, 1932 the George Washington Masonic National Memorial was dedicated. Perhaps it was a revengeful Mother Nature who let loose five days of rain, causing the dedication to happen within the Memorial’s confined theater. On the other hand, so deep was the Great Depression that it took all the herculean strength of Louis Watres, Charles Callahan and the other directors to even finish the Memorial. It took another eighteen years before the colossal George Washington statue was dedicated in Memorial Hall. It was not until 1957 before visitors could ride an elevator to enjoy the views that “stretches away for miles and the panorama, near and distant, including places, objects, and landmarks that are indissoluble associated with our country’s history.”

During this long period of the Memorial Association’s slowed progress, only a few new plantings occurred. In 1932 the Tall Cedars of Lebanon planted a young cedar along the driveway. In 1935 Martha Washington Chapter № 42 of the Order of the Eastern Star donated money for more trees and the American War Mothers planted a red oak tree near the Lebanon cedar. Today, the Memorial’s Dedicatory Tree Program continues the same tradition, allowing individuals and organizations to dedicate new trees on the Memorial’s grounds.

In 1939, Parker at last acquired an ally in new Memorial President Elmer Arn (PGM, Ohio). A medical doctor, Arn was also an amateur horticulturalist. Having grown up on farm, he had a keen interest in the Ohio Masonic Home’s landscape and gardens. Together they revised they updated the 1923 landscape plan. But little work was done as priorities after the Second World War turned to maintaining the long driveway and building the large northwest parking lot (which Parker designed).

After 1950, when Parker became a partner in Olmsted Brothers, he was no longer involved with the Memorial’s landscape. His 1923 plans remained essentially unchanged until the late 1960s. In hindsight, President Watres and the Association showed great wisdom in completing Corbett’s memorial temple before the unforeseen Great Depression, but it remains unfortunate that Parker’s garden was left largely untended for over thirty years.

Mark A. Tabbert is the Director of Archives & Exhibits of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association.