On June 5, 1922, Association President Louis A. Watres, Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania (left shovel), and Charles A. Callahan, Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia (right shovel), break ground for the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Family, friends, Alexandria city officials, and local Masonic brethren witnessed this historic event.
On Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1922, Grand Masters of the United States assembled in Alexandria as the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association to unanimously approved an audacious design for a memorial temple to George Washington.
Organized in 1910, the Association spent its first twelve years as a volunteer collection of Grand Lodge representatives who met annually to discuss a theoretical memorial to George Washington. After February 22, 1922, that dream became real. Prior to this, the American Grand Masters might have liquidated the accumulated assets, sold off the land, and quit the idea. Or they might have been satisfied with a smaller Masonic temple and museum.
But after February 22, 1922, American Freemasonry was officially launched upon a great and noble enterprise that could expect support from every American Master Mason.
Naturally, after committing to build the Memorial, the next questions many asked were “How soon do we break ground?” and “When can we conduct a Masonic cornerstone ceremony?” The first event happened just a few weeks later, while the cornerstone would wait another 20 months. Between the first spades of dirt and the greatest assemblage of Freemasons in American history, the Craft’s intentions would be put to another great test, culminating in one more vote.
After that February meeting, the Association Executive Committee, chaired by Pres. Louis A. Watres, next met on April 29th, in the New York office of the architects, Helmle & Corbett. While the attendees celebrated the approval of the Memorial’s design, Watres quickly sobered the mood. What was once a “Masonic public relations campaign” was now a highly complex and daunting construction project. For the next several years, the committee needed to balance the demands of labor, materials, cash flow, Masonic support, and public interest to erect a reinforced concrete tower over 330 feet high with a stone façade. They had the design, $500,000 in the bank, 2.5 million Freemasons in the country, nearly 35 acres of land, and a dedication target date of 1932—the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth.
Watres’ first order of business was to legally transform the Association. The committee unanimously agreed to transfer all the Association’s assets, liabilities, contracts and obligations into a chartered corporation of the Commonwealth of Virginia. With this action the Association was no longer a collection of volunteer Freemasons, but a legal entity answerable to the law.
Next was to ensure the Memorial would rest on a sound foundation. The committee authorized two engineers to separately make tests on Schuter’s Hill to determine if it could support such a great structure. They also authorized the Cranford Company of Washington, D.C., to estimate the cost to prepare the hill for construction. The meeting closed with the attendees confident that real work on the Memorial would soon begin.
On a wet and rainy June 5, at high noon, ground for the Memorial was broken. After an invocation was delivered by the Rev. Bro. W.J. Morton, the simple ceremony was witnessed by city officials, contractors, and brethren from Alexandria-Washington Lodge № 22 and other local lodges. President Louis Watres and Charles Callahan, presiding Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, turned the first shovels, and the construction was officially underway.
A month later, Watres reconvened the Executive Committee in New York City and received reports from the two engineers and the Cranford Construction Company. Happily, both consulting engineers agreed that the hill, comprised of largely of clay, was “ample, sufficient, and would hold for all times.” And the Cranford’s bid of $37,500 to clear, lower, and level the hill by 17 feet was accepted. Secretary-Treasurer Claude Keiper reported total funds available surpassed $700,000, so it was agreed to fund construction from the base up to the first 14 feet of the ground floor.
Looking forward, the committee discussed three more issues: landscaping, promotion and the cornerstone ceremony. For several years, the Olmsted Brothers of Massachusetts had worked on landscape plans, but due to construction costs and miscommunications, the plans were tabled in 1922.
Promotion, however, was discussed in detail, especially as it connected to increasing financial donations and attracting greater Masonic participation in, and press coverage of, the future cornerstone ceremony. Special charcoal-etched renderings of the Memorial were presented and the committee approved these first drafts. The images and other materials would be reviewed and approved for distribution in October. The triptych lithograph showed an interior view of Memorial Hall, a panoramic view of the Memorial with the District of Columbia in the distance, and a close-up view of the Memorial’s façade. Hundreds of prints were distributed to grand lodges and lodges throughout the nation.
Lastly, the committee turned eagerly to discussing the cornerstone ceremony. They agreed to invite U.S. President Warren Harding (a Mason), Chief Justice and former President William H. Taft (also a Mason), the Governor of Virginia, and all levels of government, civic, religious, and Masonic leaders. But a date could not be set until the construction’s speed was determined.
On July 1 more than 400,000 railway workers went on strike. Lasting until mid-August, the strike brought nearly all rail freight to a standstill. When the Executive Committee met again in early September, construction was working at full capacity, but the strike and other shortages would postpone the cornerstone ceremony until at the earliest late spring 1923.
At that meeting, H.W. Corbett reported that the Memorial’s details were sufficiently advanced to provide a fair estimate of the total cost of construction. In conjunction with this cost, the committee would soon need to choose the stone for the tower’s façade. The committee asked for construction cost estimates with variations for a granite, marble, or limestone façade.
Meeting in October, on the job site, in the office of the Cranford Co., the Executive Committee received H.W. Corbett’s construction estimates. They ranged according to the choice of stone to sheath the tower. The lowest cost was for Bowling Green Limestone at $2 million, with marble in the middle at $2.4 million and granite, as the high estimate, at $3 million. Several of the committee members were in favor of economizing by completing the base with granite, but covering the tower in limestone. Corbett strongly recommended using granite for the whole building, and consulting architect, S.E. Osgood, concurred. When all costs of securing various types of limestone or granite combine with labor were compared, the estimated difference was $500,000, or a nearly 25% variance in total construction cost. President Watres’ decided to defer such a (literally) monumental decision to the Association’s annual meeting on February 21 and 22, 1923.
The thirteenth annual meeting was held at Alexandria-Washington Lodge with representatives from thirty-four grand lodges. After concluding the usual business, a statement of expenses for the last twelve months left the Association with a balance of $382,106. However, signed contracts for the next twelve months totaled $294,563—leaving a total asset balance of only $87,543.
President Watres then impressed upon the brethren that sufficient money be always be on account to meet all contracts: “For if it ever stops coming in, our Memorial, might be like the Washington Monument which stopped midway and stood unfinished for thirty years before the work was recommenced.” While acknowledging the current pace of fund-raising would meet the estimated total construction cost of $2.1 million, he announced it likely that the total price would rise by over 20% as the cost of materials and labor also rose. Suddenly the Association was faced with a total cost approaching $2.5 million, and the daunting task of raising at least 10% of that each year for ten years.
Watres, who had served as colonel in the Spanish-American War, charged on unfazed. He then strongly recommended they approve of an additional $500,000 to sheath the entire Memorial in New Hampshire Pink Granite, “so that 200 years from now the brethren who mount to that historic tower will not find the material marred and defaced. It must be of granite. In other words, it must be something that will speak for Masonry for all time.”
After Watres’ exhortation, the brethren heard plans for the cornerstone ceremony, discussed modifying the Association’s bylaws, received the Treasurer’s report, and enjoyed an address by the Rev. Bro. J.S. Durkee, President of Howard University.
Later, at the request of President Watres, both H.W. Corbett and S.E. Osgood explained the need to employ granite for the entire building. After a short discussion, the Masonic leaders of America stayed the course. They unanimously approved, and pledged to voluntarily raise an additional half million dollars, or $3 million over ten years (equal to $41,600,000 in current dollars). Then, moving on to the one question everyone really wanted answered, the Association voted that the cornerstone ceremony would be “some day between the first and twelfth of November 1923, the exact date to be fixed by the Board of Directors.”