Everyone knows Freemasonry loves secrets. 19th century Freemasons ingeniously hid some of their secrets in plain sight. They carefully selected colors and finishes with Masonic significance for their rooms. When a Mason saw one of these finishes, he instantly knew the encoded Masonic meaning behind it. If an outsider looked at the same finish, however, he or she would be ignorant of its significance, or even that it had any meaning whatsoever.
One of the best examples we have of this at the Masonic Hall is a faux ashlar block finish on the second floor hall walls and the first floor old stairwell walls. These walls are original and were constructed when the Hall was first finished, probably around 1826. Though the walls look like stone blocks, they are entirely plaster. This buff-colored, sandy plaster was applied to the walls, allowed to set up, then scored to resemble blocks. After it had completely cured, a painter came in and painted black lines in the scored grooves. In the first floor stairwell, a painter also painted the entire faux block finish with a gray limewash, giving it a rougher, unfinished appearance.
This is not an exclusively Masonic finish. In fact, faux ashlar block finishes were very common in 19th century buildings. The Carter house (c. 1830), just two miles from the Masonic Hall, had its own version of a faux ashlar block finish in its entry hall. This kind of decoration was well within the canon of the average 19th century Franklinite’s experience. In normal 19th century life, the only meaning behind this finish was to dress up a room by making its walls look like dressed stone.
So what is the hidden meaning behind the faux ashlar block finish at the Masonic Hall? In his 1882 publication The Symbolism of Freemasonry, Freemason Albert Mackey includes the following section on ashlar stone:
“But the operative mason required materials wherewith to construct his temple. There was, for instance, the rough ashlar—the stone in its rude and natural state—unformed and unpolished, as it had been lying in the quarries of Tyre from the foundation of the earth. This stone was to be hewed and squared, to be fitted and adjusted, by simple, but appropriate implements, until it became a perfect ashlar, or well-finished stone, ready to take its destined place in the building.”
Let’s unpack this. For Freemasons, ashlar is the primary building stone of the Temple (Masonic buildings represent King Solomon’s Temple). Figuratively, the perfect–or finished–ashlar also represents the Masons themselves. The hewing and squaring, fitting and adjusting, is implemented through the enlightenment and education of Freemasonry. So, through Freemasonry, these men have been worked, dressed, and transformed from the rough ashlar in its natural state into a usable stone–finished ashlar–from which the Temple can be built.
This idea of enlightenment through Freemasonry is encoded in the faux ashlar block walls of the Masonic Hall. The gray faux ashlar block finish in the first floor stairwell represents the unfinished ashlar. It transitions to the buff, finished faux ashlar block on the second floor. Masons climbing the stairs were reminded that they were, quite literally, being raised from ignorance to a state of enlightenment. But for anyone else who stumbled into these rooms, the walls were just walls with a familiar decorative finish.
That’s the genius of a secret hidden in plain sight.