Dan Brown has got to be pulling his hair out.
After telling everybody that his next book would be about the Freemasons and Washington DC, and probably called The Solomon Key, then not publishing anything for almost five years, the world has had way too much time to second guess every possible plot point, landmark and potential clue he might use. And I suspect every time a National Treasure movie comes out, his wife has to spend three days talking him off of the window ledge.
So as I'm doing research this week, for recreation I'm also reading Bob Arnebeck's Through A Fiery Trial, which is a mind-numbingly detailed account of the building of Washington DC, the subject of my book Solomon's Builders. As I hit the stories of 1793 and the building of the White House and the Capitol Building, I came across a reference that leapt off the page, screaming Dan Brown Alert. It talks about a large rock outcropping in the Potomac River called, of all things, The Key Of All Keys.
A little digging discovered this passage in BUILDING STONES OF OUR NATION'S CAPITAL by Washington's late historical geologist, Jim O’Connor:
In colonial days the first solid ground on the marshy north shore of the Potomac, just north of where the Lincoln Memorial is now, was an outcrop of Piedmont rocks which jutted out into the river. This promontory served as the starting point for surveys establishing property lines for the early settlers. On several old maps it is labeled "Key of All Keys," and for many years it bore a surveyor's benchmark. Its more popular name was Braddock's Rock reportedly because General Braddock and his red-coated soldiers accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington landed there in 1755 on their ill-fated journey to Fort Duquesne.
In time Braddock's Rock became a quarry. It is said to have furnished stone for the foundations of both the White House and the Capitol. Later, stone from Braddock's Rock was used in the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. About 1832, when the canal was extended below Georgetown to connect with the Washington City Canal, nearly all that was left of the original outcrop of Braddock's Rock was blasted away. The riverside swamps have long since been filled and the land raised above the level of the original surface.
All that remains of Braddock's Rock can still be seen enclosed in a circular granite-lined well south of the grounds of the old Naval Hospital, amidst the approach ramps to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. An iron grill covers the top of the well, and a ladder leads down to the rock, which is about 16 feet below the present land surface and is usually covered by several inches of water.
O'Connor refers to the Old Naval Hospital, but the same property was home to an earlier building, the Old Naval Observatory, which was built on what was known in the Colonial times as "Observatory Hill." British Navy ships frequently docked here to offload troops and supplies. And it's location is directly east of what was Mason's Island (now Roosevelt Island, named after Freemason Teddy Roosevelt).
So, if the rock was chipped away and used as foundation stones by Freemason and Washington architect james Hoban for both the White House and the Capitol Building – both of which had cornerstones laid by the Freemasons - that means both buildings contain pieces of the Key Of All Keys.
These days, all that remains of the rock itself is at the bottom of a well on the access ramp from Constitution Avenue to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge on the way to Virginia.
Now, if you are a believer in David Ovasson's book The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital then all this observatory business does make a Masonic connection, since Ovason contends that the Masonic designers of Washington were all obsessed with the zodiac, star charts and other such stellar stuff. The Old Observatory still stands in what is now the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery complex, just north of the Lincoln Memorial and just up the hill from the Key of All Keys. The original dome can still be seen and a larger telescope was used in what is now called the Old Transit House. Two notable links with the Old Observatory - it was located very close to what was to be the so-called "Washington Meridian," (16th Street) a somewhat ballsy contender for the Prime Meridian for about ten seconds in the late 1700's; and in 1877, astronomer Asaph Hall discovered the moons of Mars from here.
In 1889, the Daughters of the American Revolution published a long article by Marcus Benjamin in the American Monthly Magazine detailing the tradition of calling the rock Braddock's Rock, but also notes that it was known before the 1750s as The Key Of All Keys. But in a somewhat anti-climactic explanation of a potentially intriguing name, Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan suggests in his 1914 History of the National Capital that it was simply a variation of "quay of all quays." Boring. There has to be more to it than that.
To go from the sublime to the esoteric, 1923's The Royal Secret by I. Edward Clark devotes a chapter to the swastika, which he calls the "key of all keys" (even if linking the swastika and the "key to the House of David" now seems anachronistic, given the symbol's later unfortunate association)."There is a key to every Mystery, and every such key has been so effectively hidden that centuries have elapsed, in some cases, before its discovery. . . . The swastika cross is the key of all keys, and a knowledge of the numerals of the Hebrew alphabet is necessary to unravel the Mysteries attached therein."
There you go, Dan. Knock yourself out.