>Mondays are my days off from my do-gooder job to investigate the weird, ugly, small, large, and mysterious places that are overlooked in New York City.   This morning, I set out with a purpose: I would learn the ancient secrets of the Masons!  Might my mission be accomplished with a visit to the Masonic Hall and the Chancellor Robert R Livingston Masonic Library and Museum of Grand Lodge?

As I trudged through the slushy streets of Manhattan, I worried a bit that my outing could not possibly live up to my expectations.  However, as soon as I was in the Masonic Hall with its elaborately decorated lobby, I knew I would not be disappointed.  Even better, as I stepped on the elevator to the library, I noticed that there are free tours of the building daily!  Oh, yes!  This trip was shaping up quite nicely.

The library and museum has a delightful collection of fucking weird artifacts, beginning in the hallway.  I immediately gravitated to the display case with ginormous scary swords.  I learned that in Masonry, swords are symbols of intellect, “cutting through veils of superstition and rumor with the fine edge of reason.”  Well, the Masons certainly know a lot about rumor and superstition, I smugly thought.  I was sad to note, though, that swords are generally not used in the “Standard Work” of the Grand Lodge of New York State, although a Mason known as the Tiler (who guards the Lodge door) does carry one as a symbol of his title.  And probably to scare the shit out of anyone who tries to sneak in and steal their ritual secrets!

The hallway also displayed other random crap, such as pitchers, carved walking sticks, pipes, and a mirror, all from the 1800-1900s and decorated with Mason symbols.  Most notable were two wooden cases, one containing a gavel with a handwritten note explaining that the gavel stone was made from Solomon’s quarry in Jerusalem and that the handle is “shithin wood from the wilderness of Judea.”  The other box had held a pouch and two bottles, as well as a handwritten note from the US Consul in Jerusalem, Palestine dated Jan. 19, 1887.  The note certified that “the wine and oil… were made in Jerusalem, that the wheat was raised here, and that the leather bottles as are such [illegible] here, and were made in this country.  The wine is known as Jerusalem wine, and is seven years old.”  Later, I learned that Masons organize themselves around principles of character and morality using the framework of the legend of the construction of Solomon’s Temple.  Interesting.

I went inside the library, and was cheerfully greeted by the library director.  He showed me around and explained some other objects to me.  He repeatedly explained that the Masons have no secrets, except of course, the process of making a man a Mason through the conferral of degrees.  He assured me that they were not a cult or Satanic, not that I thought they were.  The little museum and library is chock to the brim full everything from “bric a brac” (library director’s words) like ashtrays and figurines and surreal paintings called “tracing boards” that are used to help teach conferees about the Mason symbols, to “jewels” (badges worn by Masons to signify their titles) to stained glass windows from a former Lodge that closed and signed pictures of famous Masons, like Buzz Aldrin.  (“He’s the first Mason to walk on the moon,” the director cheerfully noted.)  Taking a close look at everything took the better part of two hours, and while I was highly entertained and learned a lot, I did not learn the secrets of the Masons at the library and museum.

Still I had some hope.  A quick trip up to the executive offices of the Grand Lodge revealed to sphinx statues guarding the entry way.  Several display cases indicated which leaders throughout American history have been Masons (example: George Washington and Ben Franklin were Masons) and who were not Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, although their fathers were). In addition, there was a photo gallery of recipients of the Grand Lodge Award of Distinction.  I was fascinated tot see that Michael A. Richards (aka Kramer on Seinfeld), the inventor of the cartoon dog Marmaduke, Redd Skeleton, John Glenn, Gen. William Bratton, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur shared the award over the years.

Finally, it was time for the tour.  A gentleman approximately 150 years of age inserted his hearing aid and took me through several of the Lodge rooms at Masonic Hall.  As we visited the elaborately decorated and mysterious rooms, he explained to me multiple times that it was OK to touch things and I should ask him any questions, as they had no secrets and were not a cult.  Contrary to what I learned in the library, my friendly tour guide also told me in his thick Eastern European accent that he had been a Mason for over 35 years, and was lucky to be in the US because the Masons here believe in equality.  That’s why we are lucky that Masons wrote the Constitution, he concluded.

Each room had a platform at one end with a niche displaying the Masonic “G” behind a giant chair, an alter of some sort in the middle of the room, benches on each side, an organ at the other end, and to the right of the organ, framing the door, were two tall columns with globes on top.  Lodges are independently run and each one has its own theme.  I visited: the Colonial Room (notable for having chairs instead of benches and silver chandeliers); the French Ionic Room (notable for its portraits of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as French coats of arms painted on the walls); the Empire Room (with gold leaf walls); the Gothic Room (modeled after the Saint-Chapelle in Paris with stained glass windows); and the Chapter Room (done in an ancient Egyptian motif and the only room with curtains that divide the room into sections for the “Royal Arch Degrees”).  I had to leave before I could enter every Lodge, but it is definitely worth a trip back!  Perhaps the Masons’ secrets will be revealed to me on my next journey.

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