The Masons’ Hall on March 22, 1890 Photo courtesy of the Valentine Richmond History Center
The Masons' Hall at 1805 E. Franklin St. almost wasn't built — it ran afoul of controversy, there were money problems and ownership of the land it stands on was disputed. But built it was, and today, the nation's oldest original Masonic building in continuous use requires repair. And the few members of the Richmond Randolph Lodge No. 19 are husbanding resources to give the place a sensitive makeover.
Lodge Master Paul A. Dierickx, an information-technology project manager for Dominion, relates how a historic tour came by the hall as the guide lamented its deterioration. "He said that it hadn't been used for years," Deirickx recalls. "That it was abandoned. One of our members on the tour raised his hand and said, ‘Excuse me, but we have four meetings a month there.' But the guy apparently didn't believe our member."
The Masons' Hall survived fires, war, municipal vagaries of planning, the dwindling of Mason membership and flood waters resulting from the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston that took out a portion of a brick retaining wall bordering the eastern side of the lot. Currently, apartment dwellers living behind the building toss cigarette butts from their windows into the back patch of grass, which has Dierickx concerned that the Masons' 1787 wood structure, situated not 10 feet away, might go up if an accidental spark sets the grass alight.
The building and its lot are cubes: The cupola-topped structure is 54 by 54 by 54 feet, while the lot is 80 by 80 by 80. Whether there is Masonic numerological significance to these figures isn't clear. (Even the Masons don't know.) Theater, song and dance enlivened the hall during the early 19th century, when it served as one of Richmond's larger public buildings. Elizabeth Poe, Edgar's mother, performed there at least twice. The Marquis de Lafayette, Washington's lieutenant and ally during the Revolution, became an honorary member of No. 19 during his Oct. 30, 1824, reception. Richmond Lodge No. 13 (later renumbered to No. 19) was chartered out of the Grand Lodge in Williamsburg (founded in 1777) on Dec. 28, 1780. The Revolutionary War delayed formalization of the Richmond Masons, who probably met in a private schoolhouse then next door to the present hall. More space was soon needed. The Masons bought the lot from tavern keeper Gabriel Galt on Aug. 12, 1785. Galt, himself a Mason, sold the property to a group that included Alexander Mc-Robert, merchant and Richmond mayor (1789-1790). Galt died in 1788. The deed went missing when the real estate records were split between the city and county. The Henrico County court in 1794 ordered Galt's heirs to convey a deed to future Chief Justice John Marshall "and others in trust for the sole use and benefit of Richmond Lodge No. 10 and 19, their legal representatives and successors forever." The cornerstone was laid on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 28, 1785. Among the esteemed officials gathering was Edmund Randolph, at the time deputy grand master pro tem. Randolph stands as a national founding father, a representative to the Constitutional Convention, George Washington's wartime legal advisor, the first Virginia governor under statehood, the first U.S. attorney general and the second secretary of state. Political machinations knocked him from office in 1795 when President Washington chose to believe captured and apparently mistranslated documents suggesting that Randolph leaked information to the French government and sought bribe money. Residing in Richmond as a lawyer, he later served on Aaron Burr's successful defense counsel in his 1805 treason trial. Despite Randolph's late-career blotch, Richmond Lodge No. 19 bears his name. A fundraising committee for actual construction of the hall, chaired by John Marshall, began working in late 1785, but its lottery method went nowhere. The brick ground floor was finished and probably given a rudimentary roof to hold meetings and allow public events. A massive fire on Jan. 9, 1787, ignited from a wooden chimney at 14th and Franklin streets, consuming 50 structures out of the city's 300. Those rebuilding efforts further hampered the Masons' fundraising. By year's end, however, the hall was completed — out of wood. An anonymous accusation of fraud in the Richmond Gazette and the debt incurred by the lodge caused dissension within and suspicion without. Marshall's tremendous bonhomie eased tensions enough to restart the lottery. Carpenter William Booker nonetheless sued for $1,000. James Darmstadt, a member of means and treasurer of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, paid him. The Evacuation Fire of 1865 came within blocks of Masons' Hall. The Union military commander of Richmond, Mason Godfrey Weitzel, placed guards in front of the building to discourage looting. Northern men came instead to visit and, as lore has it, one left his saber behind, symbolizing reconciliation. It's still there among a variety of objects and artifacts. Lodge No. 10 after 1878 met at St. Alban's Hall at Third and Main streets and in the 1892 Masonic Temple at Adams and Broad for 76 years until moving to Bethlehem Road. That lodge in 2012 gave $10,000 toward a fund to ensure the Shockoe Hall's maintenance. Current fundraising efforts include a brick-naming program. Dierickx observes that the cornerstone of the Virginia Capitol, laid in a Masonic ritual on Aug. 18, 1785, proved elusive in the state house's renovation. Years of plaster kept it hidden. "That cornerstone is still there, though," he says. "And so are we." For more information, visit richmondrandolph19.com .