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The Ultimate White House Collectible

by Tom Carrier (01/28/08).
The South Portico of the White House , c. 1836.  The southwest cornerstone would be at the bottom right.
George Washington laying the cornerstone of the Capitol, 1793 from a painting by Brumidi in the U.S. Capitol.  There is no image of the laying of the White House cornerstone.

After all of that pomp and ceremony, you would think that at least one of the people who attended the laying of the cornerstone of the President’s House would remember where they put it.

If you weren’t one of the Freemasons who attended the ceremony on October 13, 1792 to lay the cornerstone at the President’s House, then let me tell you what happened.

It is Saturday, late afternoon. A crowd, not sure how many, gathered at The Fountain Inn near the construction site of the President’s House. Led by the Brother Casaneva, master of the Freemason Lodge, followed by the District Commissioners and finally the “…Gentlemen of the town and neighborhood…,” the crowd arrived at the site of the President’s House.

It was a construction site: aquia sandstone blocks lay all around. Brother Casaneva “…delivered an oration well adapted to the occasion…,” wet mortar was spread on one of the sandstone cornerstone blocks, a brass plaque with the names of the dignitaries in attendance and the date, October 13, 1792, was laid in the mortar with a special silver trowel, and the cornerstone was ceremoniously lowered into place.

The Freemasons returned to the Fountain Inn “…where an elegant dinner was provided. The whole concluded with the greatest harmony and order.” There were 16 toasts, yes, 16 toasts at the dinner, the last being “May peace, liberty and order extend from pole to pole.” Then they stumbled home.

We’ve been looking for the brass plaque ever since.

The Masons usually laid cornerstones in the northeast section of a new building. During the 1901 renovation an attempt was made to locate the brass plaque there, but nothing was found.

Then in 1946, a letter was found that described the ceremony above and mentioned that the stone was laid in the southwest corner of the President’s House. Curiously enough, the White House would undergo a complete renovation in 1949 under President Truman. The White House was literally gutted, steel beams replaced wooden ones, and the White House was methodically pieced back together in a way that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln would have no trouble recognizing.

The gutting of the White House, then, was an excellent opportunity to examine more closely the stone at the southwest corner. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at the behest of White House Architect Lorenzo Winslow, scanned the southwest corner with a mine detector. Readings were inconclusive, but promising. Can we dig through the foundation to be sure, I’m sure was a question asked of Harry Truman. President Truman being a practical guy asked whether the stones have to be replaced as part of the renovation. “No,” came the reply. “Then, leave them be.” And so they were.

Other scans were made with all other kinds of “detectors” at the southwest corner; all of them were inconclusive. And so the mystery continues: Where exactly is the brass plaque?

Now, if you were one of the Freemasons who did attend the laying of the cornerstone ceremony at the President’s House in 1792, can you please remember where you placed the brass plaque?

And, by the way, you might have been one of the Freemasons who attended the laying of the cornerstone at the U.S. Capitol the following year. You remember, the ceremony where President George Washington presided? Well, would you happen to know where you placed that one, too? We can’t seem to find that one either.

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