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If you saw the exciting—and 100 percent historically accurate—National Treasure, then you know just how crafty and secretive the Freemasons are. In real life, however, you don’t have to steal the Declaration of Independence to read the symbolic language of Freemasonry; all you have to do is walk around D.C.
As “The Initiated Eye: Secrets, Symbols, Freemasonry and the Architecture of Washington, D.C.,” makes clear, George Washington (charter master of the Alexandria Lodge) and his fraternity brothers left their Masonic fingerprints all over the capital city they helped to plan and build.
The show, organized by the Octagon (the museum of the American Architectural Foundation) in collaboration with the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Washington, D.C., features loads of nifty Masonic relics—if you’ve long dreamed of laying eyes on the Masonic apron that President James K. Polk wore when he laid the cornerstone of the Washington Monument in 1848, here’s your chance—but is built around 21 historical paintings by Peter Waddell. Waddell, 49, is artist-in-residence in Georgetown’s Tudor Place Historic House and Garden. But he’s spent the past 18 months “working full tilt—getting up early and staying late” on his Masonic paintings.
Waddell, who was born and reared in New Zealand and became a U.S. citizen in 2003, is not a Freemason. But since his arrival in the United States in 1993, he’s become well-acquainted with the Masonic imprint on Washington’s architecture. He concedes that he knows “a lot about a strange and very small topic,” but he also received some expert help: “The Freemasons assembled an advisory panel, whose members were largely chosen for their deep knowledge of Masonic arcana, to help me think about the symbolism in the works.”
Each painting, whether it be of George Washington in full Masonic regalia or Duke Ellington—a Mason, ’natch—outside the Prince Hall Grand Lodge on U Street NW in the ’20s, tells a fascinating story.
Take the painting of Harry Truman in a gutted White House, which was completely rebuilt during his presidency in the ’50s. Truman, whom Waddell describes as a “mad keen Mason,” liked to wander through the shell of his historic home. One day, says Waddell, “Truman discovered some stones with strange marks on them. He correctly deduced they’d been left by the Masons.” (James Hoban designed and built the White House with the help of Masonic stonemasons from Ireland and Scotland.)
“Truman had the stones removed and sent them to Grand Lodges all over America. Subsequently a law was passed saying you couldn’t give away parts of the White House.”
For Waddell, telling stories is what painting is all about. “When I was in art school [in the ’70s], several things were completely forbidden. One was illusionism, which was spoken of in the same tone of voice as Nazism,” he says. “You couldn’t tell a story with a painting. And you certainly couldn’t refer to history. And those things fascinated me.
“I thought the point of being an artist was that you could create illusions, that you could tell stories, and that you could talk about anything that you wanted to,” he adds. “It took me a while to get the courage, but once I figured out I could put people in costume, I was away.” —Michael Little