Masonic House of the Temple: a Wonder Hidden in Plain Sight

Masonic House of the Temple. Photo: Jorge Bela
There is plenty of invocation to classical architecture in Washington. Even modern buildings include ornamental or structural features that can be traced to antiquity, sometimes in a subtle manner, such as the patterns on the Metro’s station vaults, sometimes in a truly bizarre way, such as the superimposition of two different Italian palazzos into what is now the National Building Museum. L’Enfant’s 18th century plan and several major early buildings, such as the White House or the Capitol, seemed to set the path to follow. In the 19th century, however, there was some appetite to explore other styles, as best exemplified by the Old Executive Office Building, the Library of Congress or the first Smithsonian Institution. By the early 20th century the debate was settled, and the classicalworld became the dominant influence for the next seven decades.

I admit that I have a soft spot for buildings that are almost carbon copies of the wonders of the ancient world. The most famous and beautiful of them is the Lincoln Memorial (Henry Bacon, 1922), which looks a lot like Athens’ Parthenon. There is, however, an architect who got to design not one, but two of such buildings: John Russell Pope. One of the most influential architects in DC, he is better known for his most popular work: the Jefferson memorial, which closely resembles Agrippa’s Pantheon. Equally spectacular, but far well less known, is the Masonic House of the Temple, which was clearly inspired in the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. (It is remarkable that Russell Pope also designed two major buildings in the Mall, the National Archives and the National Gallery of Art West Wing, perhaps his masterpiece. We we will look at these buildings in future posts).
The Library. Photo: Jorge Bela
The House of the Temple was Russell Pope’s first major piece of work in Washington. Until then his work was limited to houses and small-scale projects. Despite it’s massive size and unique architecture, it is not on the radar for most of Washington visitors. It did achieve some notoriety as the setting for several scenes in Dan Brawn’s latest blockbuster novel, the Lost Symbol. For some passersby, it might even look mysterious or spooky. I live just one block from it, and it has been the subject of my fascination since I bumped into it by chance a few years ago. It has been open to the public since it was complete.
The Grand Stairway. Photo: Jorge Bela
On the day of my visit, a small group of about 10 people gathered in the hall while we waited for our guide: Thomas. About half of them were masons. The visit took almost two hours, and there are plenty of stairs, although I did see some elevators that could be used if necessary. There are many places along the way where visitors can sit if tired. Thomas led us through several rooms, from the gigantic ceremonial hall, which sits just under the pyramid on the roof, to the much smaller rooms dedicated to specific functions. The level of decoration and detail is astonishing: no expense ware spared during the construction. The building even has an early air condition system, which funneled air from the cooler underground tunnels to the big ceremonial hall. The system was damaged during the earthquake of 2011 and is not currently working at full capacity.
Thomas, our guide at the temple. Photo: Jorge Bela
Thomas, who is not yet a mason, gave us a lot of detail about the rituals that took place on each room. He patiently answered the endless questions posed by a particularly inquisitive group. The high quality of his commentary made a substantial difference in a tour that could feel too long (it lasts longer that the tour to the US capitol, for example). The library, a central spot for the journey towards enlightenment that masonry provides, was our last stop during the visit.

Two giant sphynxes seat on each side of the temple’s main door (it is believed that lions decorated the exterior of original mausoleum). They represent the pillars that stood at the gate of Salomon's temple. One has its eyes closed, while the other has its eyes wide open, representing the transit from darkness to enlightenment that the masonic rituals and believes provide. The enormous columns, steep staircase, even the sphinxes can be intimidating from the outside. Nevertheless, the staff is very friendly and welcoming on the inside. There is no charge, and I strongly recommend the visit to anyone interested in the masons or in Russell Pope´s architecture. 

House of the Temple
1733 16th St. NW  •  Washington, DC  20009–3103
T: 202–232–3579  •  F: 202–464–0487

Near by: Dupont Circle and it's historic mansions. Trendy restaurants on 14th and 17th Streets.

Possible rendition of the original Mausoleum.


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