Popular lore suggests that the street layout of Washington, D.C., was designed so that the streets emanating from the White House would intersect with landmarks in the area to form a pentagram. The designers of the district were Freemasons, and the pentagram is one of a plethora of symbols important to the fraternity. Is there any truth to this strange tale of Washingtonomancy, or is it mere coincidence? Let's take a look.
Is it a Masonic plot?
Rumors surrounding this conspiracy say Freemasons were involved in DC's urban planning, and that one of the organizations associated with Freemasonry, the Order of the Eastern Star, uses a pentagram as their logo. Their version of the symbol is constructed from five lines of equal length, creating five isosceles triangles with a pentagon in its center. In the Masonic view, a pentagram is represents the Golden Ratio, a mathematical idea found in architecture, finance, and in nature.
Two key designers of the district, Pierre L'Enfant and Andrew Ellicott, were supposedly Freemasons. However, if you do enough digging, almost every major individual in the 18th and 19th Century appears to be associated with Freemasons. Some records suggest that L'Enfant only went through the first step to becoming a Freemason.
If L'Enfant and Ellicott were part of a Freemason conspiracy, they didn't get much out of it. Neither L'Enfant or Ellicott had much success after their design work on Washington, D.C., and both claim they were never paid in full for their work designing the district. L'Enfant died in poverty and fell out of favor due his constant struggle to be paid for his design work, dying with a handful of watches and compasses to his name. Ellicott went on to academia and taught math at West Point.
A look at the D.C. Pentagram
There are over thirty commuting circles within the Washington, D.C. area (granted, not all were in place in the initial design), with three of them being points in the alleged pentagram. Lines forming the pentagram are shown in the adjacent image. In the pentagram, the White House makes one point, while the last point is Mount Vernon Square. No building was on this site until 1902, when a building that would later become a public library was constructed. These five points do form a pentagram when four lines are drawn between them. But was this a deliberate design choice?
It seems odd that one of the points, at Mount Vernon Square, would go unused for so long. If the designers were truly trying to make a pentagram, why not go all the way and place a circle or something more in line with the rest of the design instead of an empty piece of grass?
Also, one of the main features of the pentagram that makes it important to Freemasonry is that all four lines constructing the symbol be of equal length, symbolizing the Golden Ratio. In the alleged White House pentagram, the connecting line running along what is now K Street (and intersecting Mount Vernon Square) is considerably longer than the other three, failing to be a correct representation of the Golden Ratio.
What's so bad about a pentagram?
The pentagram wasn't considered an important mystical symbol until the 19th century, when Éliphas Lévi suggested in his book Transcendental magic, its doctrine and ritual:
In this sign are enchained the demons of the air, the spirits of the fire, the phantoms of the water, and the ghosts of the earth.
Lévi's description led to further adoption of the symbol over the next century. By the 1980s, pentagrams had been used to market everything from skateboards to music, with the pentagram becoming a general sign of rebellion and "Satanism."
Prior to Éliphas Lévi's designation, almost every religious group had used the pentagram at some point as a positive symbol. Christians used it to represent the five stigmata of Christ and as a symbol to ward off demons in the medieval era. Wiccans use it to represent the five elements of the Earth, and parts of Judaism use it to represent the wisdom of Solomon. Outside of religious circles, the pentagram was used as a general sign of good fortune during medieval times and was also imprinted on some Roman coins and other coinage off and on roughly 2,500 years ago.
A pentagram also resides on the national flag of Ethiopia.
Verdict: A Case of Current Symbolism cast on a Previous Era
It's an interesting idea, but there just is not enough evidence to suggest that Washington, D.C.'s urban designers deliberately chose to create a pentagram pattern with the city's streets. Neither L'Enfant or Ellicot truly had the power to make such a change or the motive – nor did they have anything to gain. Plus, the lack of a distinct point at Mount Vernon Square, and the differing lengths of the lines in the pentagram, suggest that this pentagram wasn't planning in advance. Instead, it was imposed on a typical urban landscape by modern conspiracy theorists. After all, no self-respecting Freemason would make a "golden ratio" that was so lopsided.
The story, however, makes for a great conspiracy theory regardless of the political party in office, especially after the Satanization of the pentagram in the late 20th Century.