The White House Foundation Stones

Further to the articles in our series on the history of the stone masons, we have a rather intriguing addition. During the 1950’s renovation of the White House, President Truman retrieved more than 100 stone blocks with stonemasons marks.

When I was visiting the Grand Lodge of Iowa’s Masonic Museums in Cedar Rapids, my eye was caught by some fairly unassuming stone blocks which appeared to be carved with Mason’s Marks.

I thought perhaps they were just practice pieces by operative stone masons that had been absorbed into the collection, but Museum Curator Bill Kreuger told me of their interesting history in connection with the presidential White House in Washington D.C.

In 1946, shortly after WWII, President Harry S. Truman had moved into the White House he noted in a letter to his wife Bess that: “The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth. I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].” [1]

It was not only the President who noticed the precarious state of the building:

During a formal reception in the Blue Room, the First Lady noticed the very large crystal chandelier overhead swaying and its crystals tinkling.

The floor of the Oval Study above moved noticeably when walked on, and a valet was then attending the president while he was taking a bath.

(Truman described a potential scenario of him in his bathtub falling through the floor into the midst of a Daughters of the American Revolution tea “wearing nothing more than his reading glasses.”) 

In early 1947, a “stretching” chandelier in the East Room and another swaying in the Oval Study caused further alarm. “Floors no longer merely creaked; they swayed.”

– Source: Wikipedia

 

Official portrait of President Truman by Greta Kempton, c.1945, now in the Harry S. Truman Library.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

By 1948, the President was justified in his concerns about the condition of the building when engineers confirmed the worst fears that the White House was literally falling down. Structurally weak, it was in certain danger of collapse due to a combination of factors including an extensive fire in 1814, and later additions and major modifications to the interior in the early twentieth century.

It was reported that some had quipped that the White House “was standing only from the force of habit”. [2]

The Trumans moved out of the building into Blair House across the street, and in December of 1949, the renovation of the White House began, a massive project that would take three years.

 

Renovation work on the South Portico of the White House, 1950
IMAGE LINKED: Rowe, Abbie National Park Service Accession Number 71-298, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum. (CC BY 4.0)

President Truman was a well-known Freemason, whose Masonic journey started in Belton Lodge No. 450, Missouri, in 1909. He moved swiftly through his degrees; in 1911 he helped establish Grandview Lodge, and served as the first Worshipful Master.

In September 1940, Truman was elected Grand Master of the Missouri Grand Lodge of Freemasonry, then in 1945, he was made a 33° Sovereign Grand Inspector General and an Honorary Member of the supreme council at the Supreme Council A.A.S.R. Southern Jurisdiction Headquarters in Washington D.C.

He was also a member of two affiliated bodies of Masonry, the Shriners and the Royal Order of Jesters, and was elected an Honorary Grand Master of the International Supreme Council, Order of DeMolay.

On May 18, 1959, Illustrious Brother Truman was presented with the fifty-year award, a golden anniversary in Freemasonry. [3]

One day during a tour of the demolition site, President Truman noticed amongst the rubble that a large number of the interior blocks had a mark upon them.

As a Freemason, Truman was well-qualified to notice, and interpret the marks as those made by stone masons.

He then made it his mission to have as many of the blocks retrieved, and more than 100 were delivered to the nearby Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia’s Headquarters on New York Avenue.

In 1952, Truman asked the Grand Lodge to send one of the marked stones to each United States Grand Lodge. A small brass plaque was affixed to each block, and a letter to the Grand Master from the President accompanied the stones:

“These evidences of the number of members of the Craft who built the President’s official residence so intimately aligns Freemasonry with the formation and the founding of our Government that I believe your Grand Lodge will cherish this link between the Fraternity and the Government of the Nation, of which the White House is a symbol.”

Origin of the White House Stones

In May 2011, Mark A. Tabbert, Director of Collections of the George Washington Masonic Memorial, organised an exhibit at the Museum in Washington D.C., which featured 45 of the White House Stones President Truman had donated to the Grand Lodges. The exhibit opened in conjunction with the Memorial Association’s 100th Anniversary.

Describing the stones, he stated that:

Each stone is marked by a Scottish stonemason who helped build the White House. The stones are reassembled for the first time since President Harry S. Truman sent one to every United States Masonic Grand Lodge in 1952.

Complementing the stones is a minute book from The Lodge of Journeymen Masons No. 8 of Edinburgh, Scotland.

It lists members of the lodge who, in 1794, immigrated to help build the White House. Accompanying the minute book is the lodge’s mark book, showing each stonemason’s trade mark.

By comparing these marks to the marks on the stones, visitors may identify the men who helped to build the President’s House.

Concerning the origin of the stones:

In 1789, president George Washington and the United States Congress were determined to build a great capital city.

By 1792 the site was chosen, designer Pierre L’Enfant’s street plan was adopted, and work began.

At the city’s center would be the United States Capitol, the “People’s House.” The President’s House would be located on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Washington reviewed the site and personally selected architect James Hoban’s design. The mansion’s cornerstone was laid with a small civic and Masonic ceremony on October 13, 1792.

Although foundation work then began in earnest, the government soon discovered that the young nation had an abundance of craftsmen but few master stonemasons. What’s more, those it did have were working on the United States Capitol.

After a thorough search in America and Europe, agent George Walker traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland. By spring 1794 he had recruited at least eight stonemasons from The Lodge of Journeymen Masons No. 8.

With the arrival of the eight Scots stonemasons, the White House walls rose to completion in 1798.

During construction, the stonemasons, being Freemasons, joined the local lodge. Federal Lodge No. 15 had been chartered September 12, 1793 by the Grand Lodge of Maryland.

James Hoban was its first Worshipful Master. Federal Lodge became the first lodge when the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia was constituted in 1811.

The exhibit also includes Federal Lodge’s first account book listing the Scots stonemasons and White House architect James Hoban as its first Master. Additional materials include a letter from President Truman, historic photographs, and other items. [4]

Mark Tabbert’s meticulous research showed that additional stones were distributed to:

Canadian Grand Lodges, several Order of The Eastern Star state Grand Chapters, a few local lodges, DeMolay International, the two United States Scottish Rite Supreme Councils, the Grand Lodge of Israel, and the Grand Lodge of the Philippines.

Many were hand delivered by Truman or by Carl Claudy, Executive Secretary of the Masonic Service Association.

In 2004, the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia presented stones to the recently independent Grand Lodge of Alaska and Grand Lodge of Hawaii.

Below are examples of just a handful of the stones donated to the Grand Lodges.
Two held in the Grand Lodge of Iowa Library and Museums Collection:

Left: The foundation stone presented by President Truman to the Grand Lodge of Iowa.

Right: Foundation stone from the White House presented in January 1966 by a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University.

IMAGES CREDIT:  Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of GLoI Library and Museums. All rights reserved.

Left: Another stone was given to the Grand Lodge of Minnesota – the letter accompanying the stone is also in the collection of the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Close-up of the Mason’s mark on the stone sent to the Grand Lodge of Minnesota. Photo by Mark Anderson. Image via https://masonicheritagecenter.org/

Right: The stone donated to the to the Supreme Council, 33°, S.J., on November 22, 1952., now resides in the Americanism Museum at the House of the Temple in Washington D.C. A small plaque at this stone’s base bears the presidential seal and reads “Original White House Material / Removed in 1950.” Image via https://scottishrite.org/

And one more thing…

Further to the stones from the White House, the Grand Lodge of Iowa Museum collection also has this example below. It is a stone from the east end of the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.

This stone was placed into the foundation between 1793 and 1800. It is one of 18 stones that were removed during renovation from 1958 to 1962.

The stone was presented to the Iowa Masonic Library in late 1964 by then Congressman Fred Schwengel.

 

IMAGE CREDIT:  Reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of GLoI Library and Museums. All rights reserved.
Footnotes
Notes

NOTES:

[1] “The White House is Falling Down”, The White House Historical Association https://www.whitehousehistory.org/galleries/the-white-house-is-falling-down  accessed 20/04/2022

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Famous American Freemason: Harry S Truman”, Midnight Freemasons, 2010 http://www.midnightfreemasons.org/2010/09/famous-american-freemason-harry-s_15.html accessed  20/04/2022

[4] Mark Tabbert http://www.knightstemplar.org/KnightTemplar/articles/20100909.htm

Further Reading & Resources

Grand Lodge of Iowa Masonic Library and Museums

https://grandlodgeofiowa.org/library-2/

 

“The White House is Falling Down”, The White House Historical Association https://www.whitehousehistory.org/galleries/the-white-house-is-falling-down

 

“Famous American Freemason: Harry S Truman”, Midnight Freemasons, 2010 http://www.midnightfreemasons.org/2010/09/famous-american-freemason-harry-s_15.html

 

“A White House Foundation Stone”, Aimee Newell, 2010, The Scottish Rite Museum and Library Blog https://nationalheritagemuseum.typepad.com/library_and_archives/2010/02/at-the-end-of-world-war-ii-president-harry-s-truman-1884-1972-became-aware-that-the-white-house-needed-extensive-repairs.html

 

“White House Piece with Stone Masons’ Marks”,  https://scottishrite.org/blog/virtualtour/white-house-piece-with-stone-masons-marks/

 

“The White House Stone with a Mason’s Mark”, 2017, Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center,  https://masonicheritagecenter.org/2017/08/white-house-stone-masons-mark/

Article by: Philippa Lee. Editor

Philippa Lee (writes as Philippa Faulks) is the author of eight books, an editor and researcher.

Philippa was initiated into the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (HFAF) in 2014.

Her specialism is ancient Egypt, Freemasonry, comparative religions and social history. She has several books in progress on the subject of ancient and modern Egypt.  Selection of Books Online at Amazon

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