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Sentinel of the City

By Harold Heisness

Sentinel of the City

By day, the George Washington National Masonic Memorial stands as a stately sentinel, overlooking all of Alexandria.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night – wait – that’s the Postal Service motto!  However, that part applies well to the memorial.  And, like the Postal Service delivering late evenings during this pandemic, the folks at the memorial also do something about that “gloom of night” part.” At night things on the outside bring new interest.  Often featured on local television news broadcasts in “around the region” shots, the memorial is usually bathed in soft white lighting.  But during a year’s course, you will see it lighted in a variety of colors, sometimes singly and sometimes in combination, such as red, white, and blue, and even changing colors throughout the night.  Sometimes the memorial seems bathed in an almost ethereal light.

What gives?  Do gargoyles come to life and change the lighting?  No, because the memorial has no gargoyles (that we can see, at least!).  The completed exterior of the memorial has stood atop Shuter’s Hill since 1932, the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth and, though there has been white lighting on the outside of some sort since its early days, the colored nocturnal lights are a more recent inspiration, probably starting in the 1980s, with the more widespread use of LED-based illumination.  These days, that lighting comes courtesy of the memorial’s electrician to work his magic (and no, he does not work from behind a curtain, as in “The Wizard of Oz,” but at a lighting board.  From there, according to Shawn Eyer, Director of Communications and Development at the memorial, the colors and overall lighting can be adjusted at several levels of the memorial.  In addition, as the memorial continues its renovation “landmark century campaign,” there will eventually be lighting at all levels.

Some people wonder whether the public can make “special requests” for lighting.  Such is NOT the case.  The folks at the memorial make those decisions.  Sometimes the coloration is holiday related.  Sometimes the lighting takes note of special events, such as the red, white, and blue lighting for the TC Williams graduation this past summer.  By the way, in my daytime walks past the memorial then, I saw a number of graduates posing for photos in their caps and gowns at the memorial’s base.  Pretty neat.

Others might wonder if the lighting can be made way brighter.  Maybe so, but remember, this is Alexandria, not Las Vegas!

At the memorial’s pinnacle, there is an always red aircraft warning beacon – after all, the memorial stands 333 feet tall on what is already the highest point in Alexandria.  That height is reportedly roughly the same as that of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, after which the GW Masonic National Memorial is modeled.  The ancient lighthouse was one of the “Seven Wonders of the World”.  We can’t put our memorial “lighthouse” quite in that league, but it is one impressive building and, I would argue, especially so at night!

Note:  The memorial has reopened for public tours (9-5), though as of this writing the observation deck remains closed.  For more information on that, please visit

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