Members of Congress, architects, historians and Freemasons gathered Saturday in the rain to re-enact the ritualistic laying of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol 200 years ago.
Masons in top hats and morning coats carried the Bible, trowel and gavel used by George Washington in the first cornerstone ceremony on Sept. 18, 1793. The search for the original cornerstone continues.
"The cornerstone of the United States Capitol stands out above all buildings erected in the free world," said George Adams, grand master of Masons in the nation's capital. "As the seat of government for our people, it is the home of America, it is the symbol of freedom throughout the civilized world."
A new cornerstone was dedicated according to Masonic tradition with "corn, the symbol of plenty; wine, the symbol of refreshment, and oil, the symbol of joy and happiness," according to the ceremony's program.
Masonic grand masters from each of the 50 states marched to the new stone and daubed it with ceremonial mortar. They then measured and leveled it, and Adams declared the stone "well-formed, true and trusty."
The new cornerstone will be preserved in the Capitol for the next cornerstone commemoration, a century from now. But the original cornerstone, which President Washington tapped with a marble-headed gavel and laid in place with a silver trowel, remains elusive.
Capitol architects, engineers and historians have been searching for it for months, unable to locate the engraved silver plate known to have marked it. A likely candidate is a stone about five feet long, three feet wide and 14 inches deep found in an excavation at the southeast corner of the original walls of the House of Representatives.
Architect of the Capitol George White, a Mason who also took part in the ceremony Saturday, said he believes that is probably the stone that Washington cemented into the Capitol foundations.
"It's an obviously ceremonial stone and it's in the predicted location from the public records," he said, as he waited to obtain a commemorative postmark after the ceremony. "It's different and larger than all the other stones around it. I think I'm going to declare victory and say, 'That's the cornerstone.' "
Still missing is the silver plate with its inscription hailing Washington as a hero in war and peace.
White said he thinks the plate, made by a Georgetown silversmith, was lost when the East Front of the Capitol was extended in 1958 and the original stone was undergirded with a thick layer of concrete.