A Trowel for the British Embassy but not in the Gardens

George Washington trowel at the ground breaking ceremonies at the new British Embassy (Kiplinger Library, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

George Washington trowel at the new British Embassy (Kiplinger Library, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

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.

Ground breaking ceremonies at the new British Embassy (Kiplinger Library, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.).

Foundation stone ceremony at the new British Embassy, 3 June 1928 (Kiplinger Library, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.).

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.

Washington as a Freemason (lithograph, ca 1866; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress). This print show Washington in Masonic attire and with the trowel.

Washington as a Freemason (lithograph, ca 1866; Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress). This print show Washington in Masonic attire and with the trowel.

President Roosevelt lays cornerstone for new Apex Building, Washington D.C. 12 July 1937. The building houses the Federal Trade Commission, near the National Mall. The President is shown with the trowel.

“President Roosevelt lays cornerstone for new Apex Building, Washington D.C.” 12 July 1937. The building houses the Federal Trade Commission, near the National Mall. The President is shown with the trowel. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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).

President Roosevelt lays block 208 at Thomas Jefferson Memorial, 15 November 1939. "Photo shows the President as he weilded trowel handed down through generations since George Washington. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

“President Roosevelt lays block 208 at Thomas Jefferson Memorial”, 15 November 1939. “Photo shows the President as he wielded trowel handed down through generations since George Washington” (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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.

Notes
The Washington Trowel, (U.S. Capitol Visitors Center)

The Washington Trowel, (U.S. Capitol Visitors Center)

Washington Trowel (U.S. Capitol Visitors Center)

Washington Trowel (U.S. Capitol Visitors Center)

Washington Gavel (U.S. Capitol Visitors Center)

Washington Gavel (U.S. Capitol Visitors Center)

Carper, Elsie. “Elizabeth places stone at new British Chancery, The Washington Post, 20 October 1957, p. A11. “Queen Elizabeth held the marble gavel with the wooden handle gently and symbolically tapped the foundation stone … The Queen, using a silver trowel with ivory handle, smoothed the mortar. The stone was lowered in place.”
“Washington was a Mason.” The Washington Post, 8 October 1889, p. 20.
"Gavel used [by] George Washington in laying corner-stone of U.S. Capitol again serves in dedication of stone at Washington Cathedral (23 April 1929; Harris & Ewing, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

“Gavel used [by] George Washington in laying corner-stone of U.S. Capitol again serves in dedication of stone at Washington Cathedral” (23 April 1929; Harris & Ewing, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

President Roosevelt at cornerstone ceremonies for the Department of Interior Building, 16 April 1938 (Harris & Ewing photo, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress0

President Roosevelt, a Mason himself, at cornerstone ceremony for the Department of Interior Building, 16 April 1938 (Harris & Ewing photo, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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One comment

  1. A History of The Gardens of the Ambassador's Residence, British Embassy, Washington · · Reply

    An article from the Wall Street Journal covers this tradition in NYC: http://online.wsj.com/articles/one-man-tries-to-count-all-the-cornerstones-in-new-york-city-1414031403?KEYWORDS=cornerstone

    “Ceremonies and parades accompanied cornerstone-layings, often led by Freemasons who sprinkled a rock with corn and anointed it with wine and oil to represent plenty, refreshment and joy. Dignitaries made speeches and wielded trowels.
    ENLARGE

    “It’s a noble tradition that enriches the experience of city life, but it’s gotten almost completely forgotten,” says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture and lead designer of 15 Central Park West, a condominium building which has a cornerstone, and several other New York luxury condos which don’t.”

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