• D.C. Freemason

The Rise and Fall of Temple Heights

On June 8, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt scaled a busy stage overlooking an open construction lot. The warm afternoon sun gave cover as throngs of Masons and guests arrived to witness a unique Masonic ceremony. Francis Woodman, the Grand Master of Masons of the District of Columbia, greeted Roosevelt, and after brief remarks offered him a white lambskin apron. A roar of applause erupted as the President tied his apron on and got to work. Woodman gently placed the ceremonial trowel and gavel, first used by Roosevelt’s presidential and Masonic predecessor, George Washington, to lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol, into the President’s hands. As the crowd of spectators and dignitaries watched, the President spread the mortar and tapped on the cornerstone of the Grand Lodge’s new Masonic temple. “Surely there is no place, no other city in the Union,” Roosevelt said, “where there should be as fine a Masonic temple as here in Washington, for it is in a sense a national temple where Masons from every jurisdiction gather.” 

Washington Times, June 9, 1907.

This occasion marked a high point in Freemasonry during the Progressive era, generally defined as the years between the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties, when membership ascended to new heights. During this time, Freemasonry in the District evolved from a small club of several hundred members to a large organization boasting thousands. Social clubs and appendant bodies sprang forth and applicants were encouraged to embrace every aspect of the fraternity’s network. Masonry even opened its doors, per se, to women through ancillary clubs such as the Order of the Eastern Star, which formed in 1873. The Grand Lodge amassed a cadre of prominent members including presidents, congressmen, judges, and businessmen. The Washington Post and Evening Star dedicated whole columns to the business and gossip of the Craft, so a Mason needed to look no further than his Sunday newspaper to find the goings-on, committee reports, trips, honors, and commentary from prominent Masons. 

Between 1850 and 1907, the Grand Lodge and several appendant bodies met in the Masonic Temple on F and Ninth Street, NW. Their new temple on the apex of New York Ave., Thirteenth, and H Streets, NW, included more floors and lodge rooms, a larger auditorium, and event space. The temple’s proximity to the White House made it popular as both a local and foreign tourist attraction.

The Baltimore Sun, June 9, 1907.

However, membership between 1907 and 1919 continued to climb, and the problem the Grand Lodge experienced between a forty-year span from the 1860’s to the early aughts, now occurred again within thirteen years: their relatively new temple was running out of space.  In 1820, the Grand Lodge recorded 219 members on its rolls; in 1915, just over a century after its formation, it had over 12,000 – an increase of well over 5,000%.

This rapid growth in membership coincided with a wave of economic prosperity now known as the Roaring Twenties. Gains in the Stock Market and a growing coffer enabled the Grand Lodge to set its sights on more ambitious plans. Rather than renovating their existing temple, the Grand Master appointed a committee to scour the District for new space. This time, the goal was to bring together the disparate Masonic groups scattered across the jurisdiction including the York and Scottish Rites, Order of the Eastern Star, Shriners, Grotto, Advisory Board of Masonic Clubs, and several craft lodges and bring them under one roof. The search proved fruitless until late 1921, when a committee member received a tip that a nine-and-a-quarter acre tract of land was up for sale. The “Dean Tract” sat on the intersections of Florida, Connecticut, and Nineteenth Street, NW. 

On May 12, 1922, the Grand Lodge voted to buy the land for $900,000. $125,000 was paid in cash, leaving the rest to be paid over eight years. Grand Master Charles Coombs received the deed on July 15 in front of a crowd of 5,000 spectators that included 3,000 masons, their families, and guests. Coombs christened the tract Temple Heights and laid out an ambitious plan to raise $2 million through voluntary contributions, and a detailed account of the spectacle made the front page of the Evening Star the following evening. 

Washington Herald, July 15, 1922

Coombs appointed three committees to manage Temple Heights. The United Masonic Temple (U.M.T.) Committee managed the logistical and financial aspects of construction. The Landscape Engineering and Architecture Committee determined the building design, and a committee on fundraising collected contributions. To raise funds, the Grand Lodge devised a scheme to voluntarily assess every Master Mason an equitable amount over five years. The annual assessment came to $20, which would raise $2 million by 1927 without the need of external funding. Calculations assumed that the jurisdiction would raise one thousand Masons annually in the ensuing years. 

Coombs appointed William K. Cooper, a member of LaFayette Lodge No. 19, to chair the fundraising committee. Cooper’s committee adopted the slogan “Every Master Mason a Temple Builder” and developed signs, pamphlets, and other printed materials to disseminate the campaign. Committee staff attended lodge meetings, social functions, and helped develop programs to garner more contributions. Cooper even organized a special “Day of Thanksgiving” event in November to encourage donations and add a competitive spirit to the campaign. Masons donated generously and often contributed more than the minimum annual assessment. Just one month after his appointment as the chair, Cooper announced that his committee collected 10,556 subscriptions or $874,376.05. With over five years left to reach their goal of $2 million, the Grand Lodge had already secured more than half of the total subscriptions.

"The Masonic Lodges on parade on the Temple Heights ground." December 1, 1922. The Washington Herald

Meanwhile, the Landscape Engineering and Architecture Committee mapped out the grounds and determined a building design. The Grand Master appointed the eminently qualified and venerated Bro. Elliott Woods, the sixth Architect of the U.S. Capitol and a charter member of Temple Lodge No. 32, as chair of the committee. Woods’s tenure on the committee was short-lived, though, as he died abruptly in 1923. The chair passed to Bro. David Lynn, who also succeeded Woods as the seventh Architect of the Capitol. Under Lynn’s stewardship, the committee developed a detailed topographical sketch of the grounds.

Prior to the sale of the Dean tract, the Grand Lodge commissioned architect Frank Russell White to develop a conceptual sketch of a new Grand Lodge building. In his renderings, White borrowed elements from John Russell Pope’s House of the Temple, the headquarters of the Scottish Rite’s Southern Jurisdiction, likely signaling the Grand Lodge’s wish to erect a building that complimented Pope’s iconic design. The Evening Star newspaper published one of these sketches on December 18, 1921, featuring a neo-classical dome and column motif reminiscent of the Oracle of Delphi, a design language that appears again twenty years later in Pope’s Jefferson Memorial. 

The Evening Star, December 18, 1921

By 1924, the Grand Lodge scrapped White’s one building design for a multi-building complex. The complex took advantage of the full space of the tract and enabled the various Masonic groups to occupy their own buildings. Architects and Freemasons James R. Marshall and Frank Pierson submitted their first sketches in 1924. Their plan included a large public park, observation deck, a courtyard for outdoor events, and enough space for the Commanderies to conduct parade drills. The new design added an extra million dollars to the budget, bringing the total to three million dollars. 

The Grand Lodge took no action on the proposal as committees deliberated back-and-forth on design and cost. Between 1924 and 1927, the U.M.T. committee attempted to find ways to cut costs and gain more income from the property. One plan considered erecting apartments and commercial property for consistent income. The committee also considered selling the land zoned off as a park back to the city for a quick infusion of funds. But, with no clear vision forward, uncertainty rose and Masons across the jurisdiction become more reluctant to contribute to the project. In 1925, the Grand Master transferred fundraising duties to the Association of Worshipful Masters (AWM), which met each month to conduct business.  

By 1927, the Grand Lodge had yet to break ground on Temple Heights but had spent over five years paying taxes on a property that generated no income. Grand Master Gratz E. Dunkum made the project a priority during his tenure in the Grand East and laid out a new approach during his annual address. First, the U.M.T. committee would hire a new architect to redesign the complex. Second, the committee would sell the propriety on 13th Street to supplement income. Third, the Grand Lodge would assess each lodge a fee of $50 for each Master Mason raised. Additionally, the Grand Lodge would divert the annual $1 per capita assessment levied for the Masonic Temple to fund Temple Heights. The last recommendation was to begin construction on the first Grand Lodge building. Funds generated from rent and assessments would pay for the remaining complex. 

In 1928, the U.M.T. committee hired architect Harvey W. Corbett of Helmle, Corbett, and Harrison. Corbett’s portfolio included the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. The proceedings of the Grand Lodge suggest that Corbett received more decision-making authority and controlled the design aspects of the complex. He commissioned architect and illustrator Hugh Ferriss to develop new conceptual art for the grounds and charged Ferriss to develop bold and impressive plans. Ferriss’ sketches accomplished the task and his work provides an interesting look into what Temple Heights could have been. In his drawings, the Corbett-Ferriss complex towered above the District of Columbia like a modern-day Acropolis, and great halls surrounded a giant Grand Lodge Temple with dramatic flood lights illuminating the hill as a beacon for visiting Masons. 

Meanwhile, Corbett hit a technical hurdle: the tallest building, the Grand Lodge Temple, exceeded the height limit set under DC law. After lengthy debate, the Grand Lodge determined to present their case to Congress to request a zoning waiver. The U.M.T. committee tapped Senator Arthur Capper, Chairman of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, who presented the zoning waiver bill on February 22, 1929. While both House and Senate committees on the District approved the bill, the Congressional schedule made it difficult to bring it up for a vote, so Capper decided to resubmit the bill during a new session of Congress.

On October 12, 1929, the Grand Lodge met at a Special Communication to review and vote on Corbett’s proposal for Temple Heights. Corbett calculated the total cost to erect the Grand Lodge Temple at $2.3 million, which was much higher than expected, even though he Frank-Peirson proposal projected $3 million for the entire complex. The new proposal also required the sale of the Masonic Temple on 13th Street to secure more income. Following a lengthy discussion, Past Grand Masters James Wetmore and Lurtin Ginn made a motion for just a little more time to evaluate Corbett’s proposal. The motion passed and the Grand Lodge resolved to meet in thirty days to make their final decision.

Twelve days later, on October 24, the Stock Market crashed. 

Like other institutions, the Grand Lodge was caught unprepared by events occurring on Wall Street. Between 1930 and 1942, the Grand Secretary reported the first consecutive declines in membership across the jurisdiction. In 1931 and 1932, 2,100 members dropped for non-payment of dues. (The total membership in 2019 is around 3,800.)

On November 29, the Grand Lodge reconvened to decide the fate of Temple Heights. Walter Karsner introduced the following resolution:

Whereas, Reports of the United Masonic Temple Committee and their architects’ estimates clearly indicate that the project, both as to construction and maintenance, is far beyond all reasonable financial resources of this Grand Lodge; and

Whereas, The project is a source of controversy and dissension which adversely affects Masonic interest and activity in every branch of the Fraternity; and Whereas, The present central and community temples will meet the needs of the jurisdiction for many years to come; and

Whereas, The $1.00 per capita tax now levied upon each lodge for payment of interest and taxes is necessary for the proper operation of the lodges and wasted upon the project; therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Grand Master is authorized to appoint a Special Committee of seven members to consider proper methods of terminating this project, including rescission of the $1.00 per capita tax; such Committee to report its findings and recommendations at a special communication of the Grand Lodge to be called at the convenience of the Grand Master for the purpose of acting upon such report.

The resolution passed 92 to 80. The Grand Lodge voted to reject Corbett’s current proposal by twelve votes.

While Corbett and the UMT committee determined their next steps, Senator Capper resubmitted the zoning bill in April 1930. The bill passed Congress and made its way to President Hoover’s desk for signature. “After the passage of the bill by the Congress,” noted Capper’s report to the Grand Lodge, “some pressure was brought to bear to prevent the President from approving the bill. [Senator Capper] called at the White House on both Monday, April 28, and Tuesday, April 29, presented the facts to the President and the President approved the bill on Tuesday, April 29. We now have permission by unanimous vote of the House and Senate and the approval of the President to erect our temple to the height desired.” 

The proceedings include a copy of Capper’s bill to Congress and the following preamble:  

The United Masonic Temple, plans of which have been studied and discussed by the committee, is to be a monumental structure, of unquestioned scenic value to the Nation’s Capital, and designed to serve as an adequate headquarters in Washington of members of the Masonic order. […]

The committee deems it necessary to state in this report, however, that in general, it is strictly opposed to amendments to the zoning law if they are to be in the nature of individual exceptions. […] The fact that this committee approved this particular exception is not to be constructed as establishment of a precedent for indiscriminate invasion of the zoning law. In this case, the committee was guided solely by the unusual situation which requires legislative sanction to permit the erection of an impressive permanent addition to Washington’s many beautiful monumental structures. […] It should be stated also that the portion of the building affect by this bill would serve no commercial purpose, but rather is to be in the nature of a monument to a great fraternal order.

In his letter to the Grand Master, President Hoover requested the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) and the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (NCPPC) make the final decision. It is likely that the President saw the political implications of denying the Grand Lodge a building and choose instead to rely on the two commissions decide. 

Both commissions objected to Corbett’s proposal for three reasons. First, the request set a dangerous precedent for future projects. Second, the design bore a striking resemblance to the Lincoln Memorial and may cause confusion to the city’s inhabitants and tourists. And third, the residential and commercial plans around the temple violated the terms of the Grand Lodge’s proposal because the grounds were zoned for residential space. After several months of negotiations and redesigns, Corbett and the NCPPC approved a temple design that fell within the District’s height restrictions. The new “lean” design contained a smaller Grand Lodge tower with two annexes but removed apartments, appendant body buildings, and public works such as water fountains and the amphitheater. 

With little institutional support, fewer avenues for fundraising, and declining membership the Temple Heights project came to a grinding halt.  The Grand Lodge voted to abandon the project in 1934 but it took over thirteen years to sell the property, and in 1947 when they did sell, it was only for $915,000. In their final report, the U.M.T. committee provided a detailed account of the history of the project and the overall costs associated:

The Temple Heights property was purchased in May 1922, for the sum of $900,000. The property was sold in December 1945, for $915,000, less expenses and commissions. Meanwhile, expenses, including interest, taxes, promotion campaign, architects’, attorneys’ and clerical fees, had amounted to approximately $914,275. There is now a balance […] of approximately $602,775.

The post-war economic boom revitalized interest in Freemasonry. But for many Grand Lodge officers and Past Grand Masters, Temple Heights set a bad precedent towards future capital projects. Focus now shifted from building a proper space to maintaining the Masonic temple on Thirteen street. The Grand Lodge transferred the remaining balance $600,000 into a maintenance account and allocated funds throughout the ensuing decades.  By 1981, the fund dwindled to around $161,000.

Between 1954 and 2010, the Grand Lodge reported a consecutive net loss in membership. There were various causes for the decline including a lack of interest among younger generations, a mass exodus from the city to neighboring suburbs, and instances of crime near and around the temple. Instead of increasing rent to cover losses, the temple association decided to keep rent low as an incentive to attract more use. By 1981, the annual cost of maintenance, fuel, and property taxes required the Grand Lodge to take drastic measures. On August 24, 1982, the property was sold to the National Museum of Women in the Arts for $4,750,000. The Grand Lodge held their final meeting at the temple on January 26, 1983. 

The tract made its way onto the desk of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was so impressed by the Corbett-Ferriss design that he developed his own design for the tract and dubbed it Crystal Heights. Wright’s mega-complex included over 14 tall apartment complexes, a large parking surface, and underground shopping and entertainment. The project would have been Wright’s first building in the District. However, Crystal Heights suffered the same fate as its predecessor, failing to gain the approval of the CFA and NCPPC for the same reasons as Temple Heights. The deed finally made its way to the Hilton Corporation and in 1965 Hilton built the Hotel Washington on the grounds where it remains today.

Temple Heights was an attempt by the Grand Lodge of D.C. to leave an indelible mark on the Nation’s Capital. The plans were considered, at times, audacious and fanciful. One need look no further than to one of Hugh Ferriss’ most impressive sketches to understand the scale of the project. The Grand Lodge building towers above the Capitol, White House, and Washington Monument to establish the fraternity’s influence and prominence in the District.  This, in retrospect, couldn’t be farther from the truth. For all intents and purposes, the Grand Lodge had punched above its weight. While the Masonic complex never came to fruition, one can still visit the grounds today and a careful observer may even find the single remaining artifact from the project. The name of the U.S. Post Office across the street from the Washington Hilton? Temple Heights station.