Masonic Temple (Philadelphia, PA)


A view down the Grand Staircase from the second floor

The Philadelphia Masonic Temple, built in 1873 and situated directly across the street from City Hall, is one of the city’s historic buildings and an architectural wonder. The design of its interior is among the finest of all Masonic temples. Its museum holds many interesting artifacts from American history. The lodge (the full name is The Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania) is where luminaries of the American revolution claimed membership. The last time I was in town in May, the museum was closed because of renovation to the Grand Entrance gate.

Freemasonry has been an enigmatic, some say secret society of men which has played an influential role in American history. It is assumed by some that it traces its roots back to the Knights Templar, the organization primarily responsible for Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Many of the most important Founding Fathers were Freemasons: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, to name a few. Most American Presidents were Masons. While the Freemasons were not a majority of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, whatever you think of them, they were extremely influential in shaping the ideas of what we now call American democracy and creating its form of government. How ironic that a society dedicated to equality, righteousness, and fraternity did not (and still does not) officially include women.

A guided tour of the temple will not necessarily reveal what Freemasonry is or does, in no small measure because it was led by a Stanford graduate (just kidding, but he is an alum). You do discover that it adheres to no particular faith, its only “religious” requirement for membership being the belief in a Creator. There is also a belief that esoteric wisdom was handed down by priesthoods or secret societies throughout history, dating as far back as the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, some of which is codified in the symbols that are very much a part of a Freemason’s education.

There are seven lodge halls designed in a variety of architectural styles. Oriental Hall reproduces a part of the Alhambra in Granada (Spain), giving it a striking Moorish appearance. Egyptian motifs and hieroglyphics adorn the Egyptian Hall, designed after the temples of Luxor. The other meeting rooms areĀ Renaissance, Ionic, Corinthian, Gothic, and Norman.

Oriental Room is inspired by Granada’s Alhambra

Egyptian Room shows influence of the temples of Luxor

Symbols are very important to Freemasons. There are many beyond the well-known compass and square. For example, the Star of David makes its appearance, not necessarily as an emblem of Judaism but as an esoteric symbol, signifying Divine Providence. The Star of David can be seen as an interweaving of two equilateral triangles, a special Euclidian shape and an important symbol to Masons. It also appears as points on George Washington’s Masonic apron.

Star of David

Even the materials used in the construction of the temple have meaning. An entire side of the building is covered in stone (Cape Ann syenite) that was quarried in Upper Egypt, the very same stone used by the ancient Egyptians to build pyramids and temples.

The museum is also an architectural masterpiece, done in the Byzantine style. It is so ornate that you tend to overlook the fact that it holds important Masonic artifacts, such as the apron, embroidered by the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette (also a Mason), that George Washington wore when he laid the first stone of the U.S. Capitol building.

Byzantine architecture of the museum (note the Star of David pattern again and other Masonic symbols)

If you are a Masonic scholar or interested in Freemasonry or if you are a student of architecture, you can do no better than pay a visit here.

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