Masonic Temple keeper of secrets

McClatchy-Tribune News Service/August 13, 2006
By Margaret Hair

Washington — So you're walking up 16th Street Northwest, and for the last four blocks or so you've passed nothing but quaint Dupont Circle brownstones and high-end hotels. Then — and this sort of takes you by pleasant surprise — you look to your right to see one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Or something that closely resembles that sort of startling magnificence: the House of the Temple — national headquarters, meeting place, library and museum for the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.

Modeled after the tomb of King Mausolos at Halikarnassus and designed by John Russell Pope in 1911, visitors to the building climb sets of three, five, then seven stairs — the increasing numbers represent a Mason's climb to greater knowledge — pass between two huge stone sphinxes and ring the bell at a heavy bronze double door to enter. It is not unlike Oz.

The Scottish Rite is connected to the Freemasons, a fraternal organization whose members have included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Bob Dole and Mozart.

A group that reached its height of popularity in the 1960s with more than 4 million members, the Freemasons recently have been in the public eye for the conspiracy theories that drive the plots of Dan Brown novels and Nicolas Cage movies (a sequel to 2004's "National Treasure" is expected out next year).

Freemasonry started out as a union for European cathedral builders in the 15th century. Today, it is a social and philanthropic society that gives on average $2 million a day to charities such as the Shriner's children's hospitals.

The House of the Temple, home to the supreme council for the Scottish Rite's 33rd and highest degree, has a look that's the Parthenon meets the Pyramids — a heavy reliance on geometric patterns, iconic symbols for brotherhood and hospitality, and huge amounts of quarried stone.

"Some modern architectural historians have said that the Greeks and Romans would have preferred Pope's architecture, his sense of balance, to their own," said Arturo de Hoyos, grand archivist and historian for the Supreme Council 33rd degree. In building a house of the temple, de Hoyos said, Pope wanted to embody a sacred space by including both historical and religious elements.

Pope's design for the temple, de Hoyos said, was the basis for later contracts to build the National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial.

The building is open to the public only for tours, which are guided by members of the 33rd who possess remarkable knowledge of from where in China the rugs are imported.

Visitors are a mix of Masons from out of town who want to see the building, Washington residents who are curious about what is inside the mausoleum-looking edifice they pass on the way to work and the occasional architecture student, de Hoyos said.

In April, ABC's "Good Morning America" broadcast from the House of the Temple in advance of the big-budget movie adaptation of Dan Brown's best-seller "The Da Vinci Code," which casts the Knights Templar, a group with historical ties to Freemasonry, as guardians of untold treasures and secrets. Brown has said his next book, "The Solomon Key," will focus on Freemasons and Washington.

"There has just been a feeding frenzy of interest in Freemasonry," said S. Brent Morris, managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry." Morris said the popularity of books about the organization, normally a niche market, has gone through the roof.

Freemasonry is the nation's oldest and largest fraternal organization, and the Scottish Rite — known as the "mother supreme council" — is its largest and most successful unit, de Hoyos said.

"We don't influence government, we don't try to influence businesses or religions; we are simply a fraternity," de Hoyos said of conspiracy theories that label Freemasons as anything from pagans to government masterminds.

The Internet, Morris said, is rife with those conspiracy theories: That all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons. Or that the fraternity is anti-Christian and used its sway to construct the streets of Washington in the shape of a satanic pentagram. Or that the number 33 on the back of Rolling Rock beer bottles is related to the Scottish Rite 33rd degree.

"If you take (the Internet) as your guide for Masonic information ... you are entering an uncharted swamp," Morris said.

The rumors, he said, are not true. Only nine signers of the Declaration were Freemasons. About the satanic layout of the nation's capital, Morris said the pentagram is only partial — the northeast side stops short where Rhode Island Avenue intersects with Connecticut.

"If we're so all-fire powerful, how come we can get one side of the pentagram but not the other one?" Morris said.

As for the beer: "I have tried and failed to get a free beer at the bar because I was a 33rd degree," he said. Morris guessed the number at the end of the Rolling Rock slogan ("Rolling Rock. From the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment, as a tribute to your taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you. 33.") came from a debate on which version of the motto would go on each green bottle. The one selected was the shortest, Morris said, at 33 words.

While the details of initiation rituals remain carefully guarded secrets, Freemasonry itself is no mystery. Morris said most of the rumors come from human nature, and a desire to place the blame for our misfortunes on "a nebulous and ill-defined 'they.' "

"The masons have been around long enough, and we have enough prominent members, that it's very easy to pull together a conspiracy," he said. "The fact that we have private meetings just adds fuel to the fire."

The House of the Temple might not hold earth-shattering secrets of grocery store fiction, but it does contain a public library stocked with 250,000 donated books, many of them rare editions of Masonic literature.

Triple-locked vaults in the basement hold rare and fragile works, one of which — a book of maps by an English royal cartographer — is valued around $500,000, said Heather Calloway, director of special programs.

The building itself, which cost $1 million to $2 million to build, had an appraised value in 2004 of $350 million to $400 million.

Downstairs is J. Edgar Hoover's desk in a room devoted the former member. There are rooms honoring former member and entertainer Burl Ives, Masons in American history and gifts from international Masonic organizations.

The House of the Temple also contains the remains of Albert Pike, grand commander from 1859 to 1891 who is credited with giving Scottish Rite ceremonies their philosophical backbone.

A Confederate general during the Civil War and popular target for conspiracy theorists still today, Pike rests in a wall at the center of the temple's main staircase, right behind a stone bust of himself.

"We get a couple of wackos every now and then who want to see his bones, but — no," de Hoyos said.

The Scottish Rite's national headquarters is not without its secrets and symbols. It is at 1733 16th Street, which is not its proper address — some strings were pulled so the 33rd degree could find significance even in its phone book listing.

Mostly, though, it is a place for Masonic brothers to contemplate, de Hoyos said.

And after a tour, visitors may stop by the gift shop for the Scottish Rite coffee mug or other souvenirs.

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