The Mystery of the Missing Cornerstone
On October 13, 1792, a group of Masons wearing their embroidered aprons performed the solemn ceremony of laying a cornerstone at the site of the President’s House. This edifice was later to be known as the White House.
The location of the President’s House had been chosen by none other than George Washington aided by Pierre Charles L’Enfant.
The architect of the President’s House was James Hoban, an Irish-American member of the Freemasons, who had submitted plans to Congress for a Palladian-style residence similar to many majestic buildings found in Europe which were inspired by the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio featuring elements of Greek and Roman temples.
The Masonic Fraternity had long participated in performing cornerstone ceremonies celebrating the construction of important buildings. The cornerstone (or foundation stone) was universally recognized as an important element in that it is the first stone set to provide a solid foundation upon which all other stones would be placed.
The cornerstones used in ceremonies often became a decorative marker on the exterior of the building with inscriptions bearing the construction date and the name of the architect and/or owner of the building.
It is natural that Freemasons, who use allegorical references to a heritage linking the fraternity to the builders of the great cathedrals in Europe, would have developed a public cornerstone ceremony. During the ceremony, the participating Masons examine the stone to ensure it is of correct dimensions using a square, plumb and level. The cornerstone is then consecrated with a sprinkling of corn, wine, and oil as symbols of prosperity, health and peace before asking for a blessing from the “Great Architect of the Universe”.
George Washington and Pierre Charles L’Enfant were brothers in Masonry and had also been brothers-in-arms serving in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
When he was just 20 years old, George Washington became a member of a Masonic Lodge in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and remained active in the Masons throughout his life. While serving as the General of the Continental Army, Washington attended Masonic lodge meetings throughout the 13 Colonies. In 1791 at his inauguration, the nation’s first President took the oath of office by placing his hands on a Bible from St. John’s Masonic Lodge in New York City.
Washington was a man who firmly believed in the Masonic principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth and it must have been an exceptionally meaningful moment for him as President to lay a cornerstone at what would become the home of Presidents to come after him. Washington and his family would never reside in the President’s House as construction was not finished until he left office. President John Adams and his wife Abigail would become the first to live in America’s most recognized home.
In the 228 years since George Washington laid the historic cornerstone at the President’s House, one would think that the commemorative stone would have become a “must-see” for tourists. It has not. Why? Because it has seemingly disappeared!
Countless theories and speculations have arisen about who could have taken the large stone. Despite inspections of the building, including one launched by President Harry S. Truman (himself a Mason) when the White House underwent extensive renovations in 1948, the cornerstone has not been found.
There has been considerable speculation by scholars as well as “treasure hunters” about what happened to the missing cornerstone. Masons at the ceremony could have carried it off for “safekeeping” with plans to return it to the construction site at a later date. It is assumed that at least some of the men who participated in the cornerstone ceremony might have retired to a nearby tavern for refreshments. Could the stone have been accidentally left at the tavern? Or, could a nefarious anti-Masonic group have absconded with the stone after the Masons left the building site? Perhaps, it was just a case of the stone having been misplaced during the rest of the construction process or, considering that so many buildings were simultaneously under construction in the Capitol, could the stone have been accidentally used in building another edifice?
Conspiracy theories abound but only time will tell if historians in the future can unravel the “Mystery of the Missing White House Cornerstone”.