To bring the union of the Grand Lodges into being, Articles of Union were agreed that laid the foundations of the United Grand Lodge of England. As such an important document, it was to be carried into each Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge by the Grand Registrar. Sir John Soane (1753-1837) offered to produce an ‘ark’ to stand in front of the Grand Master’s throne into which the document could be safely placed while the meeting was in progress
Soane was one of England’s greatest architects. He became a Freemason and, after the union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813, was the first person to hold the new office of Grand Superintendent of Works. As such, he was the professional adviser overseeing the maintenance and development of Freemasons’ Hall in London.
The first work Soane produced for Grand Lodge was what became known as the Ark of the Masonic Covenant. It was an impressive piece of furniture, triangular in shape with an Ionic, Corinthian or Doric column at each corner and surmounted with a dome topped by Soane’s signature lantern.
The ark stood in front of the Grand Master’s throne from 1814 until 1883, when disaster struck. A fire broke out in the old Grand Temple, gutting its interior and destroying the portraits of former Grand Masters, as well as most of the furniture and Soane’s ark. Much was done to reconstruct the interior of the room and reinstate the paintings and furniture, but the ark was not replaced.
One of Soane’s 20th-century successors as Grand Superintendent of Works was architect Douglas Burford, who hoped one day to persuade Grand Lodge to have a replica constructed. It took 30 years for that dream to finally become a reality, and Burford was delighted to learn that, as part of the Tercentenary celebrations, Soane’s ark was to be reconstructed.
The project was one of cooperation between The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation and master wood carvers Houghtons of York. Their combined efforts produced a superb and accurate reconstruction of one of the lost treasures of Grand Lodge.
After appearing in an exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum, the ark was transported to the Royal Albert Hall for the great Tercentenary celebration, where it was dedicated by the Grand Master. Afterwards, like the original, it took its place in the Grand Temple as a permanent memorial.