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NY Times City Room
The Freemasons Enter the Spin Zone
January 3, 2008
By Jennifer 8. Lee
City Room was a bit surprised to get an e-mail pitch in late December from a public-relations company promoting the Freemasons in connection with the release of Disney’s new movie, “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.”
After all, aren’t the Freemasons a secret all-male society that has been the subject of conspiracy theories ranging from possession of the Holy Grail, the founding of Atlantis and hiding secret symbols in Washington architecture and United States currency?
The Internet is filled with Web sites discussing and debunking the swirl of rumors around the Masons, whose members have included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Beethoven and Fiorello H. La Guardia.
Indeed, the movie, a sequel starring Nicholas Cage as a treasure hunter, features shadowy Masonic references woven together with the conspiracy behind the Lincoln assassination and a hidden treasure under Mount Rushmore.
But the publicist, Sid Dinsay of Dan Klores Communications and formerly of the city’s Health Department, was serious about the pitch: “With ‘Nat’l Treasure 2’ opening Friday, think you might be interested in a primer on buildings and sites in NYC that have Masonic ties?”
“We’ve gotten a lot of bad press over the years,” explained Thomas Savini, the librarian at the Grand Lodge of New York. “We reached a point we saw ourselves being represented as conspirators or useless old men, neither of which is an accurate representation of Freemasonry. For a couple of centuries, we sat back and stayed quiet and let our actions speak for themselves. But we decided to open up our mouths a little bit more and draw some attention to the positive role that Masons play in the public world.”
There are few institutions that can talk about their public-relations strategies in the scope of centuries. Perhaps the Masons were also slightly spooked by the whomping that Opus Dei, a Roman Catholic group that is also the subject of conspiracy theories, took when “The Da Vinci Code” came out.
As much longevity as the Freemasons group seems to have over all, on an individual level it is in a bit of a decline. Masons, also know as Freemasons, seem to have been dying off at an appreciable clip. Now there are about 54,000 Masons in New York (about one-third of that in the metropolitan New York region). That is down from a high of 346,413 in 1929. Membership also climbed after World War II, rising to 307,323 in 1957 before beginning a slide.
The most innocuous interpretation is that the Masons are just a fraternal organization with some interesting clothes (you can see a statue of George Washington wearing his Masonic apron in the New York Headquarters) and some odd rituals (though the initiation ranks have been abbreviated to help people achieve the highest ranks of masonry more quickly).
Intrigued, City Room decided to assemble a New York City guide to a very old group in a pretty new medium (love the Google Maps!).
The New York Grand Lodge of Masons was established in 1781. Before that, the masons operated under the aegis of the Grand Lodge of England. And no matter what legends may exist tying the Masons to the Knights of Templar or to ancient Egypt, modern Masonry was officially codified in 1717 in Europe, Mr. Saini said.
The New York Masons’ headquarters, known as the New York Grand Lodge, is an imposing building at 71 West 23rd Street (though there are additional Mason buildings in each of the other four boroughs, see below). While the current building was built in 1910, the Masons had a previous structure on the same site back to 1867. As part of the Mason’s newfound openness, the building is now open to real and virtual tours. The ornate windowless meeting rooms with altars and candles in the center certainly do not help dissuade those looking for fodder for conspiracy theories.
Probably the best known New York City structure with Masonic ties is the Statue of Liberty. The New York Grand Master, the head mason in the state, laid the cornerstone for the pedestal in 1884 as part of a longstanding tradition of masons and cornerstone laying.
Fraunces Tavern, at 54 Pearl Street, is the site where arguably the most notable Mason in American history — George Washington — spent many long hours and gave the emotional farewell to his officers in 1783.
The imposing and cubic Brooklyn Masonic Temple, at 317 Clermont Avenue in Fort Greene, is no longer formally affiliated with the Masons, though it once served as a Masons headquarters.
Other Masonic temples (“temple” is another word that feeds the conspiracy theories) outside Manhattan include the Midwood Masonic Temple at 1384 East 64th Street in Brooklyn; the Tottenville Masonic Temple at 236 Main Street on Staten Island; the Pelham Masonic Historical Society of City Island at 241 City Island Avenue in the Bronx; and the Advance Temple at 21-14 30th Avenue in Astoria, Queens.
Theodore Roosevelt, one of 14 presidents who achieved the highest rank of masonry, was born at 28th East 20th Street in Manhattan. In addition to Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, the other 12 were James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Gerald R. Ford.