What is the Masons’ Hall and why is it important?
Due to its age, history of uses and association with important personages, Masons’ Hall at 1807 E. Franklin Street is one of Richmond’s most significant buildings. Built in 1785, its history is so closely intertwined with the early history of Richmond that it is at times impossible to separate them. The leaders of Masons’ Hall (including John Marshall and Edmund Randolph) were leaders on the national stage, honing the governing principles and building the governmental institutions that are the foundations of our nation to this day. They built this country like they built Masons’ Hall – on the Masonic principles of faith, hope, charity, and civic engagement – and Masons’ Hall serves as a reminder of the impact of those principles on our early years as a nation. The masons of Masons’ Hall built Richmond too – laying the cornerstone of the Virginia State Capitol, as well as the cornerstones of many of Richmond’s other historic structures. As one of the two largest meeting spaces in the early years of our city, Masons’ Hall hosted the delegation to the Constitutional Convention, Richmond City Courts and Richmond City Council. Masons’ Hall was opened not only for governmental functions, but also to religious groups unwelcome elsewhere.
- Age: Masons’ Hall is the oldest building in the United States erected for Masonic purposes and continuously used for that purpose. Built in 1785 by Richmond Lodge Number 13 (now, Number 10) of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons and now owned by Richmond Randolph Lodge Number 19, Masons’ Hall is one of Richmond’s few 18th century buildings to survive the vagaries of war, age and finance.
- History: Richmond Randolph Lodge Number 19, founded in 1787, shared the Masons’ Hall with Richmond Lodge Number 10 until 1878 when Lodge Number 10 moved to a different location. Masons’ Hall also served as the Grand Lodge of Virginia for almost a century. Richmond Randolph Lodge has owned Masons’ Hall since 1883. Each of Lodge Number 10 and the Richmond Randolph Lodge has had a long and interesting history closely intertwined with the affairs of the city.
- History of Civic Uses: Richmond’s citizens met in Masons’ Hall to instruct the delegation to the Constitutional Convention. In addition, for many years, Richmond City Courts (including the Hustings Court, a predecessor to the current Circuit Court) and City Council met in Masons’ Hall. During the 19th century, religious groups unwelcome elsewhere conducted services in Masons’ Hall. During the War of 1812, the structure served as a hospital.
- Association with important personages: John Marshall (who received some of the earliest judicial training in Masons’ Hall when it served the Hustings Court and who later as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court established the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government) and Edmund Randolph (Virginia Governor, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, first U.S. Attorney General and second U.S. Secretary of State), were two of the distinguished members elected to be Grand Masters. Solomon Jacobs, one of Richmond’s early mayors, a noted businessman and president of his congregation, also was a Grand Master associated with Masons’ Hall. Some say that the actress Eliza Poe, mother of Edgar Allen Poe, gave one of her last performances at Masons’ Hall. Also, the Marquis de Lafayette and his son visited Masons’ Hall in 1824 and were made honorary members. Their signatures are to be found in the lodge register. When Federal troops entered Richmond in 1865, a Union general (also a Mason) ordered a guard for Masons’ Hall to prevent its being burned. The future English King Edward VII attended a lodge meeting at Masons’ Hall.
- Located in the Shockoe Valley, the valley where Richmond began, Masons’ Hall was built on a lot purchased from Gabriel Galt. Title to the lot became somewhat confused as Galt died three years after the purchase without making a deed. In 1792, a Henrico County Court entered a decree directing Galt’s heirs to draw up a deed to the property.
- Masons’ Hall was planned in August of 1785, but its construction was plagued by financial difficulties. A lottery designed to raise money failed in its purpose, and the builder had to sue for payment. Construction was begun in brick, but funds ran out after the completion of the first floor. With the addition of a temporary roof, the building was used from 1786 to 1787. In 1787, the cube-shaped hall was finished as a frame structure. The cornerstone was laid by James Mercer, Grand Master, assisted by Edmund Randolph.
- Although subsequent changes were not well documented, the exterior of Masons’ Hall has been altered from its original 18th century exterior and interior appearance. Completed in 1787 and insured in 1802 by the Mutual Assurance Company, the exterior was altered, probably in the mid-nineteenth century. The interior has been altered and the rooms have been redecorated in the 20th However, the original Palladian canopy made to cover the Masonic Master’s chair (attributed by some to Clotworthy Stephenson and William Hodgson) survives with its entablature moldings and Ionic capitals, similar to those found in the Virginal Capitol.
- Masons’ Hall reflects the social, cultural and historical impact of Freemasonry on Richmond, on Virginia, and on our country. The building serves as a lesson for future generations of the importance of the Masonic principles of faith, hope, charity, and civic engagement, and as a reminder of the impact of those principles on our early years as a nation.
- Masons’ Hall is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places and, in 2017, City Council approved designating Masons’ Hall as a City of Richmond Old & Historic District.