Historic City Memories: The Northeast Corner

The Mystery of the Northeast Corner

Part III of a three-part series.

By Geoff Dobson

St. Augustine is not immune from speculation as to secret symbols. Frequently, there are about us alleged hidden secret signs and geoglyphs unable to be seen. Conjecture arises over such symbols.

As an example, many have speculated as to the purpose of the ancient Incan symbols on the Plains of Nazca in Peru which are visible only from airplanes. Some have cited the symbols as proof the Incas invented hot air balloons or aliens visited Peru in flying saucers.

Similar arguments have been made as to the seasonal Crop Circles in the South of England or as to the great Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains east of Lovell, Wyoming.

The Wheel, at 9,642 feet elevation, contains 28 spokes with a central cairn. At the end of one spoke extending to the south, according to a 1902 description, rested a buffalo skull. The skull faced east to the rising sun. The rising sun itself has been adopted as a mystic symbol appearing among other places on George Washington’s chair at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The Wheel bears an uncanny resemblance to other mysterious circles in the Orkney Isles north of Scotland.

Others see, in the street patterns of Washington, D.C., the Square and Compass of Freemasonry. In Gainesville in the Murphree Area of the University of Florida campus, there is a giant “UF” not visible from the ground, but capable of being seen only from airplanes flying high above.

Is there such hidden symbolism in St. Augustine? An advantage of small towns such as St. Augustine is that one gets to know all of the “characters.” Years ago, the Readers Digest published a series known as “My Favorite Character.” St. Augustine has a plethora of such individuals.

One such character, a bon vivant, man-about-town, world traveler and an individual who exudes Freemasonry from every pore, believes that there is a hidden symbol within the Plaza which, because of the growth of the trees, is no longer visible from airplanes or to visiting space aliens in their flying saucers. The character is one who has traveled all about the world: to Easter Island in the distant South Pacific, to Ladysmith in the Thukela District of KwaZulu-Natal. In KwaZulu he visited the hill known as Spion Kop.

In a sense, notwithstanding travels about the world and the journey around the Masonic Lodge, our man-about-town has not led a full life. He has never sat in Florida Field and sung “We Are the Boys from Old Florida”. He has visited Liverpool, but has never sat in Liverpool’s Spion Kop where the most boisterous Liverpudlians watch their team play association football in the Premier League. Liverpudlians are more avid in their support of their team than the most enthusiastic Gators are of Florida.

Our man-about-town has not sung at the top of his lungs the traditional song:
Ohhhhhh… I am a Liverpudlian
I come from the Spion Kop
I love to sing, I love to shout
I go there quite a lot (Every Week)
We support the team that’s dressed in Red
A team that you all know
A team that we call Liverpool
And to glory we will go
We’ve won the League, we’ve won the Cup
And we’ve been to Europe too
We played the toffees for a laugh
And we left them feeling blue – Five Nil!

Our man-about-town firmly believes that the Plaza conceals a giant Union Jack. Indeed, the patterns of the sidewalks do form a giant Cross of St. George, Cross of St. Andrew and a Cross of St. Patrick; the three crosses which combine to form the British flag. However, close examination reveals that the crosses are offset one from the other. The resemblance to the British flag is only in one’s imagination.

Nevertheless, near the Plaza is a mysterious object, the Mystery of the Northeast Corner.

In the northeast corner of numerous public buildings such as Courthouses, State Houses, and religious buildings, similar objects have been ceremoniously placed after first being consecrated with the corn (in the British sense), as an emblem of nourishment; wine as an emblem of refreshment and oil as an emblem of joy and happiness.

Since time immemorial, it has been customary to place a cornerstone in the northeast corner of important public buildings and religious structures. Florida Governor Gilchrist placed a cornerstone in additions to the Florida Capitol. All of the historic previous cornerstones for the Florida Capitol bearing Masonic symbols now are placed in the northeast corner of the old Capitol. Other capitols and public buildings have had their cornerstones placed in accordance with Masonic rituals, including the United States Capitol placed by George Washington; Independence Hall in Philadelphia placed by Benjamin Franklin; the Illinois State Capitol; and the Texas State House.

Elsewhere in Florida the ancient ritual continues. This past year schools in Wakulla County and a fire house in Cape Coral have had cornerstones placed by the Grand Master in accordance with the ancient rituals. The ritual of placing a cornerstone is one of only two public rituals performed by Freemasons. The other is a funeral.

The cornerstone (more properly a memorial stone) at Government House does not bear open Masonic symbols — but there it sits in the Northeast Corner. Perhaps a coincidence, but, why the northeast corner? Allegedly the practice of placing the cornerstone in the northeast corner goes back to the ancient operative Masons of the Middle Ages in England. The northeast represents the halfway point between the darkness of the North representing ignorance, and the illumination of rising sun in the east, representing knowledge. It is an important symbol relating to the Entered Apprentice Degree of modern Freemasonry.

The beginnings of organized Freemasonry are shrouded in mystery. In theory, it is claimed that it goes back to the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Others claim it dates back to Roman Britain and Curausus in 286 A.D. and that it was reestablished in York by King Athelstane in 926 A.D.

The writer has looked in vain for recent examples of cornerstones in the northeast corner of public buildings in St. Augustine. None were found on any of the numerous buildings making up the seat of county government north of town. Other buildings are similarly lacking. Our man-about town was asked when was the last time the local lodge (named after the dressed block which constitutes a cornerstone) participated in the setting of a cornerstone. He could not recall any.

The mystery of the northeast corner is the fading away of ancient traditions. The Shriners with small cars in parades, many fraternal orders and the setting of cornerstones are all disappearing.

Even the rituals of funerals are giving way. Indeed, one may now sign electronically, via the wonders of the internet, one’s condolences on the death of an acquaintance, without the necessity of visiting the church or funeral home. For those who are more respectful and believe they should go in person, the New York Times reports that Chicago’s Gatling Funeral Home provides a drive-through service with cameras and a sound system that lets on-the-go visitors pay their respects, sign the funeral register, and view the remains of the loved one round the clock without ever leaving the car.

In Pensacola there was a drive-through funeral home at 609 North Alcaniz Street owned by a former county commissioner. The county commissioner was removed from office for taking bribes. He disappeared the day before he was to be sentenced. A month later, his decomposed body was found under the house of an ex-limo driver for the funeral home along with a few beer bottles and an empty pill container. His death was ruled a suicide as a result of drinking antifreeze. See St. Petersburg Times, January 23, 2005.

But, I suppose I will, like others, when our man-about-town passes on, skip the services at Craig’s and instead go on-line and express my condolences at www.staugustine.com/obits.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com