It did not make mention in any of the newspaper reports of the laying of the cornerstone of the Lutyens-designed Embassy on 3 June 1928, but the “Washington trowel” was employed in the ceremony. Ambassador Esmé Howard, standing with American architect Frederick Brooke, builder Harry Wardman and some of the diplomatic community but mostly with local residents, used a rather dainty silver-handled Masonic tool to spread mortar.
This same implement was used by George Washington for the dedication of the building of the United States Capitol in 1793. It made another appearance on British Embassy land when Queen Elizabeth laid the foundation stone, gray blue marble quarried in Dorset, for the new Chancery on 19 October 1957. At this event, Washington’s gavel was also used—which is not the hefty mallet in Ambassador Howard’s right hand in the photograph now in the Historical Society of Washington DC.
George Washington had become the Alexandria (Virginia) Masonic Lodge No. 22 first Worshipful Master on 22 November 1788—and first President of the United States on 30 April 1789.
The trowel, now retired from active duty for preservation and on display in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, was used, not surprisingly, for the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Washington Monument (4 July 1848) and the Masonic Temple (the House of the Temple of the Scottish Rite) in Washington (in 1907). In addition to churches and schools, the foundation stones the tool laid cement on include the Library of Congress, Supreme Court, State Department, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The trowel (which has an ivory handle) and the gavel, were crafted by John Duffey, a silversmith, husband of the daughter of Washington’s gardener.
The gavel, of Maryland marble and cherry wood, is the possession of Masonic Potomac Lodge No. 5 of the District of Columbia. It has been put to ceremonial use for many buildings and other events in the area. Among the recorded occasions: President James K. Polk for the Smithsonian Castle (1 May 1847), President William McKinley at the George Washington Centennial Observance at Mount Vernon (14 December 1899), the National Cathedral (3 April 1929), and President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the new extension of the Capitol Building (4 July 1959).
For the Americans, allowing the British to use the Washington gavel and trowel to set the Embassy was an act of high honor and respect. Ceremonies commemorating the beginning of the construction of public buildings with a dedication stone are an ancient rite. They are an act for remembrance, and the masonry tools, along with the surveyor’s compass and triangle, represent building upon virtue and resilience.
Although employed for dozens and dozens of structures throughout the city and mid-Atlantic area, apparently these Masonic tools did not appear at any other embassy or foreign mission. The significance of these artifacts is their role as symbolizing the importance of the Embassy of the United Kingdom as part of the community in the nation’s capital, being incorporated within the landscape and history of the District of Columbia.