Washington, Elizabeth II, and The Gavel
In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, made their inaugural state visit to the United States. The four-day visit included an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, meetings with President Eisenhower and Vice-President Nixon in Washington, a visit to the British settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, and a college football game.
And as the whirlwind tour drew to a close, the Queen accepted an invitation to assist in the laying of a cornerstone for the British embassy’s new extension. That singular event was a remarkable moment in the history of the District, and especially for DC Freemasons, as for a brief moment in time, the Queen of England laid a cornerstone using the same masonic implements first employed by President George Washington.
It all started on October 18, 1957, when Ray Baker Harris, the Grand Master of Masons of D.C., received a phone call from the British Embassy requesting the use of the George Washington Gavel for a cornerstone event scheduled the following afternoon. The Gavel was first used by its namesake in 1793 to lay the cornerstone of the United States Capitol. Washington gifted the implements used during the cornerstone ceremony to the Masters of participating lodges. The gavel, in particular, was given to Valentine Reintzel, who served as Master of Potomac (then working under their Maryland charter as Lodge No. 9). When Reintzel died in 1817, the gavel returned to Potomac and was subsequently passed down to each Master. Over the following years, it has participated in several notable cornerstone ceremonies for important DC buildings, including the Smithsonian Institution, Washington Monument, and the National Cathedral.
Harris, being a Past Master of Potomac, knew that the Gavel could only be removed from its place of deposit by vote and consent of the Lodge. He contacted their then Master, R. Lawrence Tilley, and requested to convene a special communication for the purpose of voting on the Queen’s request. The Lodge convened one hour later and appointed Tilley, the Senior Warden Evart Warren, and Past Grand Master Renah F. Camalier to the escort committee.
The following day, the members of the committee escorted the historic relic to the British embassy. It was placed on display with other ceremonial implements including a silver trowel shipped from England for the purpose of laying the stone. After a brief prayer and remarks from Reverend Angus Dun, the Bishop of Washington, the British Ambassador to the United States, Harold Caccia, inspected the stone and set it into position. The Queen then took possession of the Gavel and proceeded to tap the four corners of the foundation stone to formally set the stone in place. (The Queen took great interest in the Gavel, inspecting it briefly and taking a moment to read the inscription placed on the gold cap, before returning it to its case.)
While the ceremony lasted a mere twenty minutes, it was a remarkable moment in the history of Freemasonry and the District of Columbia. In 1793, George Washington served as the fledgling nation’s first President after a long struggle against monarchical rule. One hundred and sixty-four years later, a descendant of King George III’s wielded Washington’s masonic implement to perform a cornerstone ceremony of her own and help build an edifice dedicated to the mutual cooperation of both countries, once bitter enemies and now the closest of allies.