The Masonic Career of Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant

“Pierre Charles L’Enfant,” Allyn Cox, oil on canvas applied to the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol

By Pierre F. de Ravel d’Esclapon, 32°, Valley of Rockville Center, N.Y.

Photo: “Pierre Charles L’Enfant,” Allyn Cox, oil on canvas applied to the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol, 1973–1974. (From the Architect of the Capitol.

When Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol was published in 2009, numerous commentators brought again to the fore the real or alleged Masonic symbols in the architecture of the city of Washington, D.C. When queried, Masonic historians such as Ill. Mark Tabbert, 33°, and S. Brent Morris, 33°, were quick to point out that while George Washington was a Mason, there was no evidence that Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, that city’s designer, was. Indeed, Bro. Morris in his highly readable and informative The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry (2006) wrote: “Eager Freemasons with more enthusiasm than facts have claimed L’Enfant as a brother. It is unfortunate for them that there are no documents, either primary or secondary, showing L’Enfant was a Mason” (p. 181).

In the course of doing research on the early history of Holland Lodge No. 8 in New York City, I reviewed the list of members published as an appendix to the Sesquicentennial Commemorative Volume of Holland Lodge, No. 8 (1938). There, I found a tantalizing reference to a “Enfant, T. L.” listed as having become a member of Holland Lodge in 1789. Knowing from past research how French names were often misspelled when the manuscript version was copied for printing, I went back to the manuscript minutes of Holland Lodge for 1789. That year Bro. Reinier vanden Broek was the Master and John Stagg, Jr. the Senior Warden. Here is what the minutes report:

3rd April 5789: Major Francis L’Enfant [was proposed] for initiation by the Senior Warden [John Stagg Jr.] seconded by John Pintard.

Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant was in New York City in 1788 to complete renovations on Federal Hall where Bro. George Washington took his oath of office as the first President of the United States in April 1789. Records indicate there were no other soldiers in the Continental Army with the last name of “L’Enfant,” and certainly none with the rank of Major.

John Stagg, L’Enfant’s proposer, succeeded vanden Broek as Master in December 1789 and John Pintard, the seconder, succeeded John Stagg as Master in 1790. It is not surprising that Major L’Enfant should have been proposed by John Stagg, Jr.; at that time Stagg was the secretary of the Society of the Cincinnati and Major L’Enfant, a member too, had designed the Society’s medal. In 1789 the lodge elected as honorary members two members of the Cincinnati who certainly would have been familiar to L’Enfant: Major General Friedrich von Steuben, President of the Society of the Cincinnati, and General and President George Washington.

Also present at the April 3 stated communication were Past Masters John Meyer and Christian Baehr as well as Edward Livingston (the future mayor of New York, Senator from Louisiana, Secretary of State of the United States, and brother of the then Grand Master of Masons of New York, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, whom he followed decades apart as Minister to France), and Samuel “Black Sam” Fraunces, the New York tavern keeper. Among the visitors were the Seigneur de Saint Trys, listed as a Past Master of a Lodge in Lyon, France.

17th April 5789: Messrs Julian McEvers, Francis [sic] L’Enfant, Francis Christopher Mantel, candidates for initiation, were severally balloted for and accepted.

We can surmise that the Secretary in his hurry to capture all the names was confused by the first name of the candidate following L’Enfant, Mr. Francis Mantel, and inadvertently gave his first name to L’Enfant. Among the notable visitors that day was Bro. Jacob Morton who was then the Grand Secretary

5th June 5789: Messrs Upton and L’Enfant were severally entered as apprentices.

Major L’Enfant’s initiation was witnessed by Bro. P. Smith, Past Deputy Grand Master of New York. On the same day, the minutes tell us

Ordered . . . That Brs. Wyckoff, L’Enfant & S. Fraunces be a Committee to take the necessary measures to ventilate the Lodge rooms.

The Lodge rooms were then at 66 Crown (now Liberty ) Street. Appointing a celebrated architect, albeit a newly minted brother, to that committee was, of course, logical, and provides strong circumstantial evidence that Holland Lodge’s Major L’Enfant was the famous city designer.

There is no trace of L’Enfant receiving his Degree of Fellow Craft in the remainder of the minutes for the next 16 communications of Holland Lodge in the year 1789. The then custom of the Lodge was to award degrees quickly: Francis Mantel and Julian McEvers were entered as apprentices on April 17, 1789, and received their Fellow Craft Degree on May 22, 1789, with only one other communication between their 1st and 2nd Degrees. Normally, Major L’Enfant should have received his Fellow Craft Degree at the June 17 or 19 communications. He did not, and the minutes are silent on what may have happened. We do know that he was very much present in New York City, as this was the time when L’Enfant was finishing the remodeling of the Federal Hall at Wall Street near Broadway.

There is no further indication in the minutes of the fate of the committee of L’Enfant, Wyckoff, and Fraunces or of any report of improvements in the lodge room ventilation. Since we know from his biographers (H. Paul Cammerer, The Life of Pierre Charles L’Enfant Planner of the City Beautiful The City of Washington,1950) that L’Enfant was a very difficult man in his dealings with others, we might conclude that he was not invited to advance further in Masonry.

However, the historical record is clear: Major L’Enfant was a brother, even if he appears not to have advanced beyond Entered Apprentice.

THE KEYSTONE, Minutes, Holland Lodge New York 3rd & 17th April 5789

(Photos: Pierre F. de R. d’Esclapon)

Excerpts from the Minutes of Holland Lodge New York 3rd April 5789, show L’Enfant’s relationship to the Craft. They read, (above) “Major Francis L’Enfant [was proposed] for initiation by the Senior Warden [John Stagg Jr.] seconded by John Pintard,” and on 17th April 5789 (below) “Ordered . . . That Brs. Wyckoff, L’Enfant & S. Fraunces be a Committee to take the necessary measures to ventilate the Lodge rooms.”

Excerpt 01 from the Minutes of Holland Lodge New York

Excerpt 02 from the Minutes of Holland Lodge New York