By Elaine JeanSpecial to the Times
Alexandria’s cobblestone streets were once George Washington’s stomping ground. Visit Old Town this month, walk in Washington’s footsteps and learn more about the life of our first president when he went off the plantation.
First get to know George Washington from a different perspective by touring the memorial built in his honor by a grateful brotherhood of Freemasons. This is a rare opportunity to look inside an organization that’s traditionally cloaked in secrecy, and to understand the reverence it holds for Brother Washington.
Whether you believe the Freemasons are a benign organization akin to the Kiwanis or an ancient order hell-bent on world domination, you will enjoy a rare peek behind the scenes at the George Washington Masonic Memorial (101 Callahan Drive).
Inspired by the Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt, the memorial honors Washington as a guiding light for his country and fraternal organization. Architecture combines Greek and Roman styles in a structure made of, not surprisingly, stone. Exhibits introduce Washington as a Freemason and Charter Master of Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge No. 22.
Visitors enter on the main level and are welcome to wander there and on the lower level. Five dollars gains access to the tower and observatory, with a tour lead by a Freemason who will answer questions — at least most of them — and bring you to the museum and several other rooms sponsored by Masonic chapters.
The ride up in the lush, wood-paneled elevator is quick and cozy, and every trip seems to include at least one visitor who knows his Dan Brown inside-out.
The museum on the fourth floor enlightens visitors about the many hats that Washington wore: soldier, farmer, president and Freemason. Artifacts include his field trunk from the Revolutionary War, tools from the cornerstone ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building, a few strands of his hair and a transcript of his will as it appeared in the local newspaper.
Next you’ll visit rooms that feel more like chambers, the first of which is sponsored by the Royal Arch Chapter. Borrowing heavily from Egyptian and Hebrew cultures, décor of biblical inspiration enhances the walls and a beautiful simulation of the Ark of the Covenant takes center stage. Think Indiana Jones.
Knights Templar Room dedicated in 1957 by Richard Nixon
The Knights Templar Room is Medieval French Gothic and was dedicated in 1957 by then Vice President Richard Nixon. It features four enormous stained glass windows — the most significant of which depicts the three degrees of Freemasonry — as well as two suits of armor and the sword of a Crusader.
Tucked away on the ninth floor is a reconstruction of the interior of the temple of King Solomon — including throne, large copper bowl, oil lamp holders and a tree of life — sponsored by the Tall Cedars of Lebanon, a chapter best known for its fundraising efforts in the fight against Muscular Dystrophy.
An observation deck circles the top of the tower and boasts a 360-degree view — 400 feet above sea level. The Capitol Building, Washington Monument, National Harbor and other points of interest are easily spotted, and Alexandria is laid out below like a model railroad village.
Back on the main level a colossal bronze statue of Washington in full Masonic regalia — all 17 feet and seven tons of him — graces the entry hall, and murals on each side depict important events in his life as a Mason.
Parking for the George Washington Masonic Memorial is free in the lot on Callahan Drive. The memorial is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
George Washington’s Alexandria
After you’ve met George Washington the Freemason, consider getting to know the father of our country as a man about town. The past is woven with the present here, making for one stylishly entertaining history lesson.
Drive down King Street to the Ramsay House Visitors Center (221 King St.) for maps, brochures and a certificate for free on-street parking, as well as a free restaurant book containing special discounts. Buy Alexandria’s Key to the City containing coupons for admission to most of the following attractions — for just $12.
The Carlyle House Historic Park (121 N. Fairfax St.) is the next stop. As a prosperous and influential founder of this city, John Carlyle hosted his good friends, George and Martha Washington, on numerous occasions in his elegant home. It has been restored to show how Carlyle lived and entertained, giving us a slice of aristocratic life.
Standing in the middle of rooms — and not behind a Plexiglas barrier — helps visitors feel especially connected to the past. Don’t expect to see any ghosts, though. A dead cat has been entombed behind one of the walls to ward off paranormal activity.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop (105-107 S. Fairfax St.) is now a museum, but from 1792 to 1933 it was a family-owned pharmacy that cured whatever ailed local residents. Prominent customers included Nelly Custis, Robert E. Lee and Martha Washington, whose request for castor oil is proudly displayed in one of the exhibits.
Visible among the rows of medicines and elixirs are opium and cannabis, as well as lavender for depression and powdered pumpkin seeds for tapeworm. Bottles of dragon’s blood and snake root might make you think you’ve wandered into Diagon Alley, but these are the names of products in the company’s line of paints and varnishes.
This apothecary shop was one of the oldest continuously functioning pharmacies in the country when it closed in the 1930s. The building was sold with all of the items intact, so it’s a fascinating time capsule, whether you’re into pharmaceutical history or not.
Gadsby’s Tavern (138 N. Royal St.) consists of two buildings — a tavern and an inn — and George Washington really did sleep here. Visitors can tour the historic rooms and dine in the fine restaurant, which serves his favorite meal — glazed breast of duck with scalloped potatoes — and other Colonial favorites.
This was the center of social, political and business life in 18th-century Alexandria. It also was George Washington’s favorite dine-in and take-out joint, so much so that he didn’t include a kitchen in the design of his Alexandria townhome.
In 1798 and 1799 George and Martha celebrated his birthday at Gadsby’s Tavern, and the Birthnight Ball is still held every year in his honor. Alexandria loves to commemorate its most famous resident, hosting a Washington’s Birthday Parade that follows a mile-long route and is the largest in the country.