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Published in The Seattle Times online on June 30, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on July 3, 2022
Will Des Moines’ majestic Masonic Home be demolished?
By Clay Eals
Near the south King County waterfront suburb of Des Moines, 10-year-old Richard Kennedy tickled his accordion keys to perform the “Lone Ranger” TV theme (the “William Tell Overture” finale) in a 1964 recital on the stage of the Masonic Home of Washington.
He had no idea he would grow up to be mayor of Des Moines and later lead the Des Moines Historical Society’s effort to save the same structure inside which he’d played the clarion call.
What would Kennedy’s hometown be without the majestic, 95-year-old edifice, sparkling from its hillside for all to see from land and Puget Sound?
“Des Moines would slowly become just another place without anything to denote it from the next town,” he says. “We’ve lost so much. The history is gone, there’s very little left. The Masonic Home is the most outstanding building in the city.”
Technically, the Masonic Home — built in 1925-27 by the European-rooted Freemasons fraternal assembly as a statewide residence for elderly members and wives “who have ceased to bear the heat and burdens of the day” — was erected not in Des Moines but one mile south in the community of Zenith.
But in 1982, Des Moines annexed Zenith, and in a town known for massive retirement complexes, the Chateauesque, five-floor Masonic Home stands preeminent. As city-council member JC Harris told the Waterland Blog earlier this year, “The Masonic Home is Des Moines. We all just live here.”
Closed as a retirement center in the mid-2000s, it hosted events for several years. The Masons studied its conversion to assisted living, a tourist casino or communal workspaces but determined that rehabilitation, costing $40 million, would not pencil out. In 2019, they sought a city demolition permit and sold the home. The current owner is Sumner-based Zenith Properties, which has filed its own wrecking-ball permit request.
In response, Des Moines began an environmental review, inviting citizen comments this spring and triggering an advocacy alert by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. But the city, says Bonnie Wilkins, city clerk, has advised its council members to stay mum to achieve an appearance of fairness during the extended study because council comments could prompt a developer lawsuit. “It’s pretty serious stuff,” she says.
That doesn’t deter the passionate JC Harris, who promotes the Masonic Home’s preservation, envisioning it as a park, city hall and/or community center, complete with coffee or wine bar: “It’s one of the most beautiful things in all of Puget Sound, which makes it one of the most beautiful things on the planet Earth.”
The stage is set for a Lone Ranger-type rescue.
Thanks to Mike Shaughnessy, Richard Kennedy, Kevin Hall, Chris Moore and Huy Phan for their help with this installment. Additional kudos go to the more than 100 people who turned out in the hot sun of May 22 to pose in our “Now” photo.
To see Clay Eals‘ 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.
Below are a video of Des Moines City Council member JC Harris, six additional photos, a 1938 booklet, four reports and documents, six web links and two historical articles from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.
- City of Des Moines: Zenith Properties Building Demolition Application
- City of Des Moines: Zenith Properties Building Demolition Application comment tracker
- City of Des Moines City Clerk
- Seattle Times story, Dec. 20, 2020
- Waterland Blog, Feb. 11, 2022
- Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Advocacy Alert