Looking out through a newly polished third-floor window of Masons’ Hall in Shockoe Bottom, it’s hard to fathom that while this perspective hasn’t changed in 235 years, the view — that of an ever-changing city landscape — most definitely has.
Along a sloping cobblestoned stretch of East Franklin Street, near bars and restaurants, circa 1785 Masons’ Hall is the oldest building in the United States built for and continuously used for Masonic purposes. It’s also one of only a handful of buildings in Richmond of such vintage that’s still standing — though not without some help.
Masons’ Hall is getting a face-lift and some much needed support, thanks to a partnership among the hall’s current owner, Richmond Randolph Lodge No. 19; its associated charitable nonprofit foundation, Masons’ Hall 1785; and Historic Richmond, as well as funding from the Matthew and Genevieve Mezzanotte Foundation.
The most obvious change in the building at 1807 E. Franklin St. is its freshly painted exterior. Gone is the peeling, flaked paint on the top floors of the building. Sparkling new windows throughout the building retain new and period glass for architectural significance. What passersby won’t see are large support beams in the attic that fortifies the roof, which has also been repaired to reverse years of issues that led to the failing support beams.
The leaning cupola on top of the building has been fixed. Perched on top remains a late 18th-century weather vane thought to be purchased around the same time that George Washington bought one for his beloved Mount Vernon.
Masons’ Hall is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. It was designated in 2017 as a City of Richmond Old and Historic District.
“Its history is synonymous with the early history of Richmond,” said Historic Richmond Executive Director Cyane Crump. The building “is important on a national basis, not just for Richmond.”
Freemasonry is called the world’s oldest and largest secular fraternity, with some speculating that its origins derived from the stonemasons who built Europe’s castles and cathedrals centuries ago.
At its core are three facets: faith, hope and charity.
Stepping into the sunken ground level of Masons’ Hall is like walking in the footsteps of those who shaped not only Richmond’s history but also that of the nation. The lodge’s namesake, Edmund Randolph, was Virginia’s first attorney general and later its seventh governor. As a Virginia delegate at the Continental Congress, he introduced the Virginia Plan, which formed the basis for the U.S. Constitution.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was a Mason, and it’s largely held that his law offices were located inside Masons’ Hall at one time.
Randolph Lodge Mason Matthew Maggy explained earlier this month that when Masons’ Hall was constructed — it was finished in 1787 — it was the largest nondenominational space in the city.
For that reason, it served not only the Masons but also other groups. Social banquets and balls were held there. Religious groups that did not have their own meeting places were allowed to use the building. It was also used by the courts and city government.
“This was really the social center of the City of Richmond,” said Maggy, noting that an 1811 performance by actress Eliza Poe — Edgar Allan Poe’s mother — was her last before she died in December of that year.
During the War of 1812, Masons’ Hall served as a military hospital. It hosted the likes of American Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, who was made an honorary Mason in 1824. The future English king, Edward VII, visited Masons’ Hall while still Prince of Wales.
Legend goes that in April 1865, as Richmond was being evacuated and much of the city was burned ahead of advancing Union troops, three buildings were spared from looters by Union leaders — the Virginia State Capitol, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s home, and Masons’ Hall.
Longtime Masons’ Hall 1785 Master, Bill Thomas, said revitalization efforts at Masons’ Hall represent a rebirth of sorts, which can only enhance and tie into existing historic resources across the city.
“It’s remarkable,” he said, “that this frame building continues to be with us.”
Masons’ Hall is still a working lodge. Under normal circumstances, it’s open for public tours throughout the year, though COVID-19 has sidelined them for now.
“It’s not just the Masons’ building, it’s Richmond’s building,” Maggy said, and “we’d like to share that with everyone.”
Unlike other Masonic lodges that have seen their memberships dwindle, Randolph Lodge, its Masons say, is growing. With a membership of roughly 100 Masons, new membership interests can be attributed, in part, to the care and preservation of Masons’ Hall, said Randolph Lodge Master Jake Crocker.
Particularly for younger Masons, “the authenticity that you have when you walk into Masons’ Hall ... just blows them away,” he said.
“We’re meeting in a room that we’ve had the same meeting in — uninterrupted — since 1787,” Crocker said. “In] how many rooms anywhere in this country are you still having the same meeting for the same purpose for [more than 230] consecutive years?”
Additional restoration and renovation projects are planned for whenever funding becomes available through donations or other means.
Some of those pending projects include addressing some issues with the building’s foundation and with its gutters and shutters.
The stories, the lure, the history — not to mention the appreciation for a building that, from the beginning, has direct ties to Masonic ancestors centuries ago — is what draws people in.
“There’s so much to tell here,” Crocker said. “You feel it when you’re in this building.”