The Memorial’s Cornerstone Ceremony

December 20, 2018

The Memorial’s Cornerstone Ceremony

November 1, 1923, was a brisk and sunny day for the Masonic cornerstone ceremony of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

Within seventeen months of breaking ground, Schuter’s Hill was leveled and graded, a 168 by 268 foot concrete “anchor” was poured, the foundation was constructed, and thousands of tons of granite arrived from New Hampshire. As construction began, American Freemasons responded with ever greater support. The Memorial Association spent the summer of 1923 organizing every detail of the cornerstone event. The day began with opening Alexandria Lodge № 22, followed closely by the Grand Lodge of Virginia at 9:30 a.m. The parade, with a delayed start of 11:00 a.m., contained seven divisions that included 22 marching bands, and over 10,000 Freemasons. Leading the parade was a U.S. Army cavalry troop, a company of infantry, two platoons of engineers and “Pershing’s Own” marching band. Then came a company of U.S. Marines and the Marine Corps Band, and lastly 500 sailors from the USS Richmond anchored in the Potomac River.

More than two hours after leaving the lodge room, the Grand Lodge of Virginia along with more than 15,000 Freemasons and spectators were in place on the hill. President Calvin Coolidge, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, Virginia Governor E. Lee Trinkle, most of the U.S. Grand Masters, and many other civic and Masonic dignitaries were escorted to their seats. Alongside the American Masonic leaders, including Puerto Rico, were representatives from Ontario, Panama, Philippines, Quebec, and Venezuela.

The cornerstone ceremony began with Virginia Grand Marshal W. A. James proclaiming to all assembled “to persevere silence and to observe due order and decorum.” This he made “to the South, the West and to the East.”

In an act of great fraternal kindness, Grand Master James H. Price handed his gavel to Deputy Grand Master Charles H. Callahan, known as the “Father of the Memorial,” so he could conduct the ceremony. Acting Grand Master Callahan then made a brief announcement on why Freemasons conduct such ceremonies, and directed Grand Senior Warden B. W. Beach to inform Grand Junior Warden James Bowman, and he to the all those present, that the work was about to begin. After his orders were obeyed, Grand Chaplain F. T. McFaden made the invocation:

. . . . It has come into the hearts of men to erect this temple, this memorial, and as succeeding generation shall see it, may they understand and live up to the principles for which he [Washington] stood, and to the life he lived, the life of consecration, the life he rendered to his country. And may it be instilled into their hearts until the end of the world, and be the foundation upon which shall stand, in the years to come, the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.

Following the invocation, Memorial Association President Louis A. Watres addressed Acting Grand Master Callahan. He explained the Memorial Association’s purpose then he respectfully requested the Grand Lodge of Virginia “to lay the cornerstone of this temple according to the ancient rites of Free Masonry.” An ode to Freemasonry, “To Heaven’s High Architect All Praise,” was then sung.

After the cornerstone was raised by chain and pulley, the Grand Secretary and Grand Treasurer placed a large sealed box under and within the stone. It contained items contributed from every U.S. Grand Lodge, foreign Grand Lodges, national Masonic-related organizations, and Alexandria Lodge № 22. The choir sang another hymn, “When Earth’s Foundation First Was Laid.”

The Grand Marshall then presented the working tools to the Acting Grand Master, the Grand Senior Warden, and the Grand Junior Warden. Together they assumed their stations to the east, west, and south of the stone.

Acting Grand Master Callahan then requested President Coolidge and Chief Justice Taft to advance to the stone. He presented them with the same small silver trowel used by President Washington at the September 18, 1793, Masonic cornerstone ceremony of the U.S. Capitol. After the President and the Chief Justice dapped wet cement on top of the stone, every U.S. Grand Master who was present, or his representative, followed suit.

Acting Grand Master Callahan ordered the Cornerstone lowered into place. This was done in three distinct motions with grand honors given after each descent. Another hymn, “Father of Love and Might,” was sung as the Grand Lodge officers prepared to try the stone. The Senior Grand Warden proved the stone level, the Junior Grand Warden proved the stone plumb, the Acting Most Worshipful Grand Master proved the stone square, and the Grand Marshall proclaimed the foundation stone “to be true and trusty, and duly laid.”

The ceremony of consecration was then performed. The Acting Grand Master poured upon the stone the Corn of Nourishment, the Grand Senior Warden poured the Wine of Refreshment, and the Grand Junior Warder poured the Oil of Joy and Gladness. After which Acting Grand Master Callahan made the following invocation:

May the All Bounteous Author of Nature Bless the inhabitants of this place with an abundance of the necessities, conveniences, and comforts of life; assist in the erection and completion of this buildings; protect the workmen against every accident and long preserve the structure from decay . . . . 

Acting Grand Master Callahan, with Grand Senior Deacon W.  L. Davis on his right and Grand Junior Deacon John T. Cochran on his left, returned to the stone and with his gavel gave the stone three distinct knocks. Grand honors are then rendered with a final blessing by the Callahan.

Lastly, the working tools are presented to architect Harvey Wiley Corbett with the charge that as the cornerstone was truly laid, he is entrusted “with the superintendence and direction of the work, having full confidence in your skill and capacity to conduct the same.” Corbett accepting the tools, the ceremony closed with one last hymn, “O Praise Ye the Lord, Prepare Your Glad Voice.”

With the ceremony complete, Deputy Grand Master Callahan returned the gavel to the Most Worshipful Grand Master of Virginia James H. Price.

Memorial Association President Watres introduced the Right Reverend James E. Freemason, Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Washington, D.C. He concluded his speech with this charge:

There is a common level in our Fraternity, a great democracy that binds us all together. As the years come and go, may that bond keep us so closely knitted together that we shall contribute our part, dear Brethren, not only to perpetuate the memory of Washington, but perpetuate that for which he gave all he had of genius and of wealth, to perpetuate the fair Republic of which we, as citizen, are so justly proud.

Grand Master Price then ordered Grand Marshal James to proclaim the ceremony closed and the Grand Chaplain McFaden gave the final blessing. The procession reformed, returned to Alexandria-Washington № 22’s lodge hall, where the Grand Lodge of Virginia was closed in ample form.

President Coolidge, Chief Justice Taft, and other civilian officials were escorted off Shuter’s Hill, while the thousands of Freemasons and spectators found their own ways home. For many Freemasons, however, the long day was only half over, for a great Masonic banquet would be held that night. The banquet was held in the largest room available in town, the fourth floor of Alexandria’s torpedo factory.

The banquet was a gift of fraternal hospitality from Alexandria’s many Masonic bodies, including Andrew Jackson Lodge № 120, Mount Vernon Royal Arch Chapter № 14, Old Dominion Knights Templar Commandery № 11, and Martha Washington Chapter № 42, Order of the Eastern Star. Grand Master Price presided as toastmaster. Numerous smaller banquets were held by Masonic bodes at other locations around the city.

After dinner the first speaker was brother, the Honorable E. Lee Trinkle, Governor of Virginia, who declared: “Chief Captain in the world’s great camp of leaders—Soldier of Truth – Champion of popular rights, and of democratic world destinies – Master Mason – Spotless Spirit – such was Washington.”

Following the Governor, the Acca Temple Chanters sang a short selection of songs, accompanied by the U.S. Marine Band. Grand Master Price then introduced Memorial Association President Watres. His short speech focused on the Memorial’s great purpose and concluded:

As nearly three million Masons in the Unites States reverently lay the cornerstone of this memorial to Washington the Mason, we dedicate ourselves anew to the principles of our Fraternity which he so fully reflected, to the Republic of our love which he so nobly fought for and founded, and to Almighty God, who rules over the destinies of nations and of men.

Two more songs were sung by the chanters and Toastmaster Price introduced Andrew L. Randell, Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Texas. Randell focused his sentiments on the Memorial’s Founder, Charles H. Callahan:

I do not believe there is a Mason in this audience who has watched his course for the last fifteen years as he has put his heart and mind and soul into this movement, who did not feel a deep sense of emotion and gratitude, and whose eyes were not wet, when he stepped before that cornerstone and let fall his gavel as the Acting Grand Master of Masons in Virginia.

The evening’s last speaker was Past Grand Master of Massachusetts, Melvin M. Johnson. Well-known as a great Masonic leader, jurist and after-dinner speaker, Johnson began his talk with a few jokes, but finished with a poem:


But may that day, more beauteous, soon come
When man, though loving not his country less,
Shall more than country, love his fellow man.

Grand Master Price declared it the end of a perfect day, and the orchestra played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

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