The Mystery of the White House Cornerstone

“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”­­ – President John Adams

The cornerstone of what became the White House was laid this week (Oct. 13) in 1792 in the fledgling city of Washington, D.C., and that cornerstone was to become legendary.

But first a bit of the history. George Washington himself chose the White House’s location — now at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — while the actual building was designed by an Irish immigrant architect named James Hoban, whose design Congress chose over several other proposals, including one by America’s most famous home-grown architect, Thomas Jefferson.

The White House originally was constructed of white-grey sandstone, which was such a contrast to the predominantly red brick buildings around it that it was called the White House as early as 1808, belying the popular belief that it became the “White House” only after being torched by the British in the War of 1812 and subsequently re-painted white.

John and Abigail Adams were the first official residents of the White House, moving in on November 1, 1800. Over the years the building was destroyed and rebuilt, remodeled and enlarged — the West Wing was added during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency — and during President Harry Truman’s administration it was gutted and restored so that the structure could be reinforced.

Which brings us back to the cornerstone, a polished brass plate that was laid by a party of Freemasons (Washington was a Mason) who, so the story goes, were so pleased with their work that they immediately retired to a nearby tavern to toast the building, the country, George Washington, one another, liberty, justice, and anything else they could think of — the upshot of which was they could not later recall exactly where the cornerstone had been laid.  The further upshot of which is — today we do not know the cornerstone’s location.

Over the years attempts were made to identify its location, including during the Truman remodeling when the walls were scanned with a mine detector.   Although traditionally Freemasons laid the cornerstone in a building’s northeast corner, the loudest responding “buzz” to the mine detector came from the southwest corner of the original structure, confirming the only written account ever found describing the cornerstone’s location.  When it was suggested that excavation be done in that area to confirm, and retrieve, the cornerstone plate, Truman vetoed the idea.

Thus the cornerstone’s location remains the oldest secret of the many that are now a part of White House lore. Given the number of secrets its (mostly) “honest and wise” residents have kept over the years, that seems fitting.