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Romance of the Stone

Mystery lingers: Where did those Freemasons put that White House cornerstone back in 1792?

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There is no doubt that on the afternoon of Oct. 13, 1792, a group of Freemasons marched from Georgetown to the site of what is now the White House and laid a cornerstone. That evening, though, by about the 11th toast--this one to "the fair daughters of America"--the congenial gathering of Freemasons at Georgetown's Fountain Inn had begun to grow a bit hazy about where they had laid that particular stone earlier in the day.

Five more toasts followed, concluding with the wish "May peace, liberty and order extend from pole to pole." Then the revelers went off into the night with only the faintest notion of what they had planted--the beginnings of an institution that would be the heartbeat of the greatest, most powerful and enduring democracy on Earth.

Among the most important and exalted buildings to Americans is the White House, home and office to Presidents, symbol of liberty to the world. It's getting all polished up for the 200th commemoration of the day (Nov. 1) President John Adams moved into the brand-new edifice. But even now, we are not sure where those jovial Masons put the cornerstone.

There is only one known written account of the event, which came to light many years later, in 1946. It is a letter from "a gentleman in Philadelphia to his friend in Charleston, dated October 20, 1792" (as noted by the Charleston, S.C., City Gazette & Daily Advertiser), that describes "the first stone" being laid "in the southwest corner of the president's house."

On that Saturday, according to the anonymous letter, a crowd gathered at the Fountain Inn and shuffled down the dusty street to the raw construction site, optimistically termed the President's park.

The Freemasons led the way by rank, followed by the district federal commissioners and then a good body of "Gentlemen of the town and neighborhood"; and last came "the different artificers, et cetera ... The ceremony was performed by brother Casaneva, master of the lodge, who delivered an oration well adapted to the occasion." President George Washington was working in Philadelphia.

Wet mortar was spread on one of the foundation stones, which were all of Aquia sandstone quarried in Virginia; then a polished-brass plate with the names of the dignitaries and the date was pressed into the mortar and the cornerstone lowered in place.

We like to think there was a huzzah or two, but no one knows. We do know the group "retreated, in regular order, to Mr. Sutter's Fountain Inn, where an elegant dinner was provided. The whole concluded with the greatest harmony and order."

Before the discovery of that anonymous letter, conventional wisdom had it that the cornerstone had been placed in the northeast corner of the White House, since it was Masonic practice to choose that corner. In a 1901 renovation, paint was scraped from a few stones in a vain effort to locate an inscription. Once the Charleston letter surfaced, interest immediately shifted to the southwest corner of the White House.

During Harry Truman's 1949 remodeling, when the building was literally gutted, White House architect Lorenzo Winslow became so intrigued by the stone mystery that he arranged for the Army Engineers to scan the walls with a mine detector.

"We tried the detector all around and got the loudest buzz at the southwest corner," reported a triumphant engineer. "The plate appears to be between two stones about chest high from the outside ground level, about the second or third stone up." Some exuberant historical sleuths suggested that cuts be made in the stone to retrieve the plate, study it and then return it to its hallowed place.

They had not counted on the Washington Post's eruption at the idea of violating sacred stones. Nor had they figured on Truman, who said it was O.K. to take a look at the plate if it was uncovered in the normal renovation process but vetoed any prodding around in solid walls that did not need replacing or repairing.

The Truman crews did find something. They uncovered a marble box under the White House entrance hall. Inside the box: an empty bottle of Hunter's Baltimore Rye, apparently placed there when Prohibition was gaining momentum and hovering darkly over bibulous politicians. A White House "ghost" was stirring.

But mysteries never die. In the next years, a radar device from the Virginia department of transportation was trundled up to the building's walls, and blasts of shortwave were unleashed, yielding some encouraging but gauzy "reflections" in the southwest corner. Not good enough.

Next came the dowsers with their twitching shafts. Two came from North Carolina. One joined from Pennsylvania, and among the three of them, they managed to zero in on other White House stones in totally different places.

Time for a 17th toast: To the White House at 200 years. May it ever live with all its glorious history--and its secrets intact.


Cover Date: October 9, 2000



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