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“What is that thing?”

The tower that rises above the summer haze over Alexandria inspires wonder in most out-of-towners. “A Buddhist pagoda,” someone guesses. “Art deco run amok,” offers another. But the truth is better. Called the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, the monument honors the first president in a way that makes Mount Vernon seem like a quaint country shrine.

Washington was also the most famous of Freemasons—a medieval craft guild that resurfaced as an Enlightenment fraternity and continues today. Modeled on the ancient lighthouse in Old Alexandria, the stepped edifice is part Depression-era shrine, part fraternal Tower of Babel. Ground was broken in 1923 with the same trowel Washington used to inaugurate the Capitol, a fact that might have pleased the Great Architect of the Universe, as He is sometimes known in the Masonic vernacular.

Fifty thousand people visit the memorial every year, most of whom take the elevator tour of the tower rooms. I can personally vouch for the Supreme Council Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm Grotto Archives Room—a nice place to, if not catch your breath, at least broaden your grasp of Masonic heraldry. The room holds honorary fezzes and tassels under glass; a wallboard listing lodges called Baghdad, Kismet, Amoo, Shalomar, and Koran; and an exhibit on dentistry for the handicapped (a favorite Masonic charity). Respectful portraits of FDR, Truman, and Ford line the wall, honoring just a handful of the 14 presidents who have been dues-paying Freemasons.

The tower narrows as the elevator climbs. The Royal Arch Room permits a brief glimpse of its prize—a model Ark of the Covenant unveiled on an altar so visitors can snap a few photos before the remote-control curtain closes. On the eighth floor, medieval body armor and stained-glass windows grace the Templars’ Chapel, designed to resemble a 15th-century church. Pilgrims admire a bronze floor plaque engraved with “E Pluribus Unum” and the Great Seal of the United States, while a tape of a Wurlitzer moans the soulful strains of “Amazing Grace.”

At the end of an hour, there’s nowhere to go but down. The guide lets you off near the 17-foot statue of Washington, flanked by windows commemorating Masons like Ben Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette. (It may be the only time you’ll see stained-glass saints in frock coats and wigs.) After the Washington family Bible and the gavel made from a Mount Vernon magnolia, the tour comes to an end. Having run the gamut from the All-Seeing Eye to Solomon’s Throne to an exhibit on arteriosclerosis, I have only one question left: Who are these guys, anyway?

“I’d say the cornerstone of Freemasonry is its commitment to charitable purposes,” answers Jack Riddell, curator of the memorial’s Replica Lodge Room and a Mason since 1951. Riddell estimates the nationwide fraternity donates a million-and-a-half dollars a year to charitable causes like muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy, and is best-known for the children’s hospitals run by the Shriners (a Masonic offshoot). Local members gave 10,000 units of blood last year and donated scholarships to needy college students—whether they come from Masonic families or not. “We do try to spread it around as equitably and as fairly as we can,” says Riddell.

Despite a penchant for secrecy, the Masons are forthcoming about basic rules. Members must be male, 21 years old (in most states), have an abiding faith in God, a means of support, and be sponsored by a lodge member. (Riddell himself belongs to four lodges.) Though an open Bible is on display at meetings, religion and politics are taboo subjects in the lodge. Unlike his symbolic forebears, who apprenticed for years, an aspirant can become a “Master Mason” in four or five months—and he doesn’t even have to know how to lay a brick. The more esoteric degrees (the Scottish Rite includes titles like Chief of the Tabernacle and Knight of the Royal Axe) don’t interest Riddell, who whimsically describes himself as a “POM”—a Plain Old Mason.

Like other fraternities, Freemasonry has had its troubles. National membership—about 2.5 million (4 million worldwide)—is down 30 percent from 20 years ago. “We really should be recruiting,” Riddell admits, despite traditional Masonic sanctions against it. Looking for converts detracts from Freemasonry’s secret aura, devaluing the group’s sense of prestige. But “no organization is going to last very long unless it recruits,” he says glumly. “You’ll die. Freemasonry, too.”

The modern pressure of two-job families and shared child care, Riddell continues, means that many young men don’t have time to come to meetings. Besides, “you can’t compete with the stuff on television,” he says, wagging his head. “Some of the meetings we have are not wildly exciting,” he allows, “but fun.” Behind him, an antique Masonic clock ticks with a ponderous gait. Riddell walks into the next room to show off the timepiece that was in Washington’s bedchamber when he died—the clock hands are frozen, the cord of the driving weight having been severed at the time of death.

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Removed from the beaten path of most tourists, the memorial looks a bit like the shrine that time forgot. Of 15 volunteer guides (all Masons), 12 are World War II vets—a couple of them, adds Riddell, “uninvited guests” of the Third Reich in the ’40s. White-haired, wearing ties and suspenders, they have the look of fresh-scrubbed elders gathered for a reunion. “The enthusiasm level of the Masons is there,” affirms Riddell, who trains the guides, “but the energy level has diminished considerably.” In fact, several of the Grand Lodges have ordained that black cubes replace black balls for balloting, making it easier for members to distinguish them from white balls—a handy device for those who have poor eyesight.

For a group of civic do-gooders, the modern Masons have made a lot of enemies. Hitler confiscated their assets in Germany. The Ayatollah Khomeini threw them out of Iran. (A Grand Lodge operates in exile in D.C., says Riddell, conducting meetings in its members’ native Farsi.) I watch as a group of Russian teens storm the door near closing time, and Riddell consents to an after-hours tour. “They do it every time,” grouses one guide about the plague of tardy foreigners, “but it’s the best thing we can do for them.” The Russian Grand Lodge, banned for decades in the Soviet Union, was re-established a few months ago—and the Balkans aren’t far behind.

Open to men of every creed and color, the brotherhood is—and always has been—predominantly WASP. Though the memorial frequently mentions Solomon’s Temple, for example, the fraternity segregated Jews in ethnic lodges until well into the 20th century. Called “Freemasons” because of the craft secrets that allowed them to cross borders while building the great cathedrals, the Masons are still ostracized by the Catholic Church for their secret ceremonies and traditional anticlericalism. In 1983, Rome reaffirmed that any Catholic who joined the Masons would be “involved in serious sin and [could] not approach Holy Communion,” though the threat of excommunication was lifted. (Riddell assures me that local lodges have a few Catholic—and Muslim—members.)

The story of black Masons—segregated since they first organized in America in 1778—is also troubling. Local black and white lodges have little contact today, Riddell admits, though some African-American members visit the memorial. Of 51 Grand Lodges in America, only 10 recognize the Prince Hall Masons, the largest black contingent in the country. Riddell’s personal feeling is that it’s a “social” issue, not a moral one. While ceremonies of the two groups are similar, he thinks that people of both races feel more comfortable socializing with their own kind. Though a few Northern lodges have integrated, one local one (he won’t specify which) refused admission to a black applicant only a couple years ago.

For women, the rules are simpler. “[Freemasonry] is a fraternity,” Riddell says patiently, “and you don’t have girls in a fraternity.” The first stonemasons were men—accounting for the rule on fraternal membership. Though a few female lodges exist in England and France (and one allegedly in Colorado), “we don’t have any fraternal relationship with them,” says Riddell. “They’d have to be clandestine in nature because they wouldn’t have developed the same ceremonial rites that we use.”

The Masons have tried to make it easier for the proverbial wives who stay at home. “I don’t have any time for lady Masons,” agrees Betty Briggs, executive secretary of an “associated Masonic organization,” the International Order of the Eastern Star. Over a million strong, the Eastern Star comprises both men and women, with the ladies required to have a Masonic family connection. Sixty percent female, the Eastern Star’s members have an average age of about 55. It is, she says, the largest international fraternal organization that includes both sexes, and is dedicated to charitable and educational pursuits.

“I have such a high respect” for the brotherhood, adds Briggs, whose husband and father are Masons, “that I wouldn’t even think of invading their privacy.” Scholars have alleged that the Masonic ban against women was rationalized by the old saw that they were incapable of keeping a secret. With a hearty laugh, Briggs dismisses the idea as a “myth,” and Riddell agrees.

“We don’t build cathedrals anymore,” he says, summing up the Masonic mission, “we build character.” Over the centuries, Masonry has become a mix of Biblical injunction, self-improvement philosophy, and home-grown democratic ideals. The Masons collect symbols the way a paleontologist does fossils. The magic emblems span from Solomon to the Gothic Arch to the cult of Washington—call it an aging Protestant cabal (nonsectarian, of course) with a nobler pedigree than either the Kiwanis or the Rotarians.

As I descend the steps before the portico’s granite columns, I ask myself, “How could Rudyard Kipling, Wallace Beery, Duke Ellington, Roy Rogers, Frederick the Great, Buffalo Bill, Paul Revere, Red Skelton, Sam Houston, Voltaire, and Ernest Borgnine be wrong?” But I wonder if most people who come to the memorial understand the Mason’s message. “No they don’t,” Riddell says disappointedly, getting up to give the next tour of the Replica Lodge Room. “Because it takes so long to tell you.”

Plationship with them,” says Riddell. “They’d have to be clandestine in nature because they wouldn’t have developed the same ceremonial rites that we use.”

The Masons have tried to make it easier for the proverbial wives who stay at home. “I don’t have any time for lady Masons,” agrees Betty Briggs, executive secretary of an “associated Masonic organization,” the International Order of the Eastern Star. Over a million strong, the Eastern Star comprises both men and women, with the ladies required to have a Masonic family connection. Sixty percent female, the Eastern Star’s members have an average age of about 55. It is, she says, the largest international fraternal organization that includes both sexes, and is dedicated to charitable and educational pursuits.

“I have such a high respect” for the brotherhood, adds Briggs, whose husband and father are Masons, “that I wouldn’t even think of invading their privacy.” Scholars have alleged that the Masonic ban against women was rationalized by the old saw that they were incapable of keeping a secret. With a hearty laugh, Briggs dismisses the idea as a “myth,” and Riddell agrees.

“We don’t build cathedrals anymore,” he says, summing up the Masonic mission, “we build character.” Over the centuries, Masonry has become a mix of Biblical injunction, self-improvement philosophy, and home-grown democratic ideals. The Masons collect symbols the way a paleontologist does fossils. The magic emblems span from Solomon to the Gothic Arch to the cult of Washington—call it an aging Protestant cabal (nonsectarian, of course) with a nobler pedigree than either the Kiwanis or the Rotarians.

As I descend the steps before the portico’s granite columns, I ask myself, “How could Rudyard Kipling, Wallace Beery, Duke Ellington, Roy Rogers, Frederick the Great, Buffalo Bill, Paul Revere, Red Skelton, Sam Houston, Voltaire, and Ernest Borgnine be wrong?” But I wonder if most people who come to the memorial understand the Mason’s message. “No they don’t,” Riddell says disappointedly, getting up to give the next tour of the Replica Lodge Room. “Because it takes so long to tell you.”