Since I began leading docent tours eight years ago at the Los Angeles Central Library, some tour goers ask—is hidden Masonic symbolism contained in the art that decorates the library? Unwilling to get into a debate about conspiracy theories or mind control, I always chose to deflect the question. But at end of a tour recently, a well-travelled, knowledgeable tour member went a step further. With some impatience he asked why I had not talked about the Masonic symbolism that was (to him) so evident throughout the building. He asked if the tour was censored, or maybe I was just ignorant of all this. Time to take the question seriously.
The original Central Library, opened in 1926, is a monumental example of early Art Deco style designed by Bertram Goodhue. Goodhue was one of the last major American architects to believe that important public buildings should be embellished with important art. It is the library’s sculpture and decorative design with motifs drawn from ancient cultures and elaborate use of symbolism that has sparked fascination with the possibility of hidden codes and secret symbols. Often it is assumed that the Masons are somehow the ultimate source for the library’s thematic scheme.
Perhaps some version of these conspiracy theories underlie the questions we are asked about the library’s art and architecture. Just do an internet search on Freemasonry and you will find websites that accuse the Masons of fostering mind control via evil secret symbols implanted throughout the media. Popular novels (Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol) and films (National Treasure) may present a more positive view of the Masons as an elite brotherhood of brilliant, powerful men. But these books and films still focus on narratives that pit heroes against evil geniuses racing to find and decode Masonic symbols believed to contain dangerous and powerful secrets of ancient wisdom.
So does our library incorporate such symbols? Let’s start by avoiding the mistake of lazy amateur historians who just assume that shadowy puppet masters somehow control the use of symbols everywhere in our culture. Instead, let’s do some actual research about the people who were involved in the specific planning and design of the original Central Library building.
Freemasonry is a centuries’ old fraternal order that traces its origins back to the stonemasons who were architects of the great medieval cathedrals. Making use of symbols that function as a coded language, the Masons engage in formalized rituals which members are sworn to keep secret. Widely popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (over three million adherents in the US), the Masons claimed prominent Americans from George Washington to Ben Franklin to FDR as members. But freemasonry has also been a target of those who suspect dark conspiracies and hold that “secret” elitist organizations have no place in a democratic society.
The Masons themselves proved to be a friendly, cooperative source of information. Each state Grand Lodge maintains historic records of members going back in some cases to the 19th century. I contacted the California State Lodge in San Francisco about two figures central in planning and funding the library building project, Everett Perry and Orra Monnette. From the moment he arrived in 1911 to assume the position of City Librarian, Everett Perry pursued the goal of building a new central library for Los Angeles. After a fight of over 10 years, his efforts produced the passage of a bond measure in 1921. Perry’s main ally was Orra Monnette, a prominent banker who for years was president of the library board. No record exists of either Perry or Monnette having been a Freemason in California.
The designer of the original library building was nationally known architect Bertram Goodhue. His longtime collaborator and close friend Lee Lawrie created all of the original library’s sculpture. Both lived and worked in Manhattan, and the New York Grand Lodge has no record of either man being a Mason. A final central figure, iconographer Hartley Burr Alexander, was a faculty member at the University of Nebraska and lived in Nebraska until about age 50. There is no record of his membership in the Nebraska Masons or in California, where he finished his career at Scripps College.
What about evidence contained in the library building itself and its decorative designs? Are there identifiable Masonic symbols? There is no overt use of the Masons’ easily recognizable “trademark” of the compass and square anywhere in the Goodhue Building. And if you examine the display of symbols commonly found on Masonic gravestones or on the tracing boards used as memory aids in rituals, there is no obvious reproduction of motifs like the double columns, the checkerboard floor, or the freestanding ladder in the library’s design and decorative art. Only in the Rotunda dome interior does it appear that a recognizable Masonic symbol—the combination of sunburst, crescent moon and stars—is in evidence, if you consider the painted sunburst on the ceiling and the sculpted Zodiac chandelier.
So, why are some library visitors convinced of the Masonic connection? Actually, there are good reasons. A genuine similarity exists in everything from symbolic motifs to historic references to elements of architectural design between our library and the visual culture created by various Masonic organizations. Whether it is just resemblance or something deeper is the question.
Let’s start with an obvious parallel: references to light. Specific symbols in the Masonic vocabulary allude to light, including sunbursts, starlight, lit candles and torches. But beyond that, a metaphor of light is basic to rituals that characterize the heart of Freemasonry. Here, in a useful nutshell, is an excerpt from the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols:
“In the language and rituals of Freemasonry, to receive the light is to be accepted for initiation. Having taken part in certain rituals, the Entered Apprentice takes an oath, wearing a blindfold. When this is eventually removed, he is ‘as if dazzled by the sudden brightness, and receives the light.’…Giving the light is a ritual performed at the opening of a meeting. The Worshipful Master alone is allowed to hold the lighted candle. He gives the light to the two Watchers who each carry a flaming torch…The light to which the rituals so often refer is none other than knowledge, which transfigures and which it is the duty of Masons to acquire.”
Much of the art that decorates the original library also references light. All of the sculptural decoration (as well as the inscriptions) on the exterior of the old library was organized around a specific theme, the Light of Learning, devised by philosophy professor Hartley Burr Alexander, who had previously collaborated with architect Goodhue and sculptor Lee Lawrie on the design of Nebraska’s state capitol. Here from the 1927 library guide is Alexander’s basic premise:
“Light and learning are associated together by an impulse so natural that it pervades the great literature of the world. Knowledge is imagined as a lamp, wisdom as a guiding star, and the conscious tradition of mankind as a torch passed from generation to generation.”
Alexander carried out his scheme in symbols drawn from classical culture and depictions of great thinkers and writers. (We have detailed knowledge of those symbols because his plan is documented in original typescripts preserved with his papers at the Dennison Library at Scripps College.)
On the library’s Flower Street facade those symbols powerfully play out in Lee Lawrie’s sculpture. The whole is an excellent example of Alexander’s erudition and ability to layer references to light and learning. Let’s begin with the tower, which is crowned with a hand holding aloft a burning torch that announces the library’s iconographic program. A serpent circles its base, and in ancient Greek appears the word light or lamp. On each face of the pyramid appears a sunburst, and around the base of the tower are allegorical figures representing great writers and thinkers. At the top of the facade is a quotation in Latin: “Like runners they pass on the lamp of life.” Directly below, a relief of two horsemen passing a torch embodies the quote. The remainder of the facade carries out the theme of illumination. Two monumental sculptural figures, Phosphor and Hesper, personify the morning and evening stars. Beneath each figure’s feet, emblematic representations of sunrise (associated with Phosphor) and sunset (Hesper) suggest the cardinal points East and West. This abbreviated symbology in turn expands to suggest a whole history of knowledge engraved on scrolls listing great writers and thinkers divided between East (Asia and the Middle East) and West (classical cultures and Europe).
One can see why those looking for Masonic connections find here what seems like proof for their theories. Let’s review the symbols. Both a lit candle and a torch are an important part of Masonic initiation rituals. The coiled serpent is an attribute of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who is a central reference in the historic legends of Scottish Rite Masonry. The sunburst is a basic Masonic symbol. Together with stars and the crescent moon, the sunburst represents God’s absolute sway over natural systems. Included in the “seers” at the tower base are Goethe, who was a Mason, and St. John of the Apocalyptic Vision, a patron saint of the Masons. A lit torch/lamp appears again in the quote from Lucretius and its accompanying relief. And finally, there is the monumental figure of Phosphor, the morning star. In another guise, Phosphor is Lucifer, the Light Bringer, the morning face of the planet Venus. In traditional Christian literature, Lucifer is the fallen angel who becomes Satan, but in some versions of Enlightenment thought, Lucifer symbolized the liberating power of human consciousness in conflict with established authority of church and state. For those who associated Freemasonry with the Illuminati (a progressive fraternal order founded in 1776 and eventually outlawed by the Bavarian state), Luciferianism was believed to be the secret religious philosophy embraced by both organizations. Today’s conspiracy theorists in turn tend to see Luciferianism as the belief system promoted by the New World Order.
Next month, Part 2 of this blog post will examine art in the library’s interior and draw conclusions about the possibility of Masonic influences.
Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.
By Kenon Breazeale, LAPL Docent