DES MOINES — A palatial building overlooking the water in Des Moines, the Landmark on the Sound served for decades as a retirement home for Freemasons. In its final years of use, the Masonic building became an event venue where couples exchanged vows under ornate chandeliers.
Now, the structure that resembles a stately old hotel awaits demolition: While specific plans remain unclear, the property was sold last year and demolition permits have been filed.
Built in 1926, the 1,319,850-square-foot campus on Marine View Drive South needed upgrades to its electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, as well as renovations for seismic safety, all of which were cost-prohibitive for the Freemasons. Necessary upgrades were estimated to cost about $40 million, said Clint Brown Jr, grand secretary of Masons in Washington.
Today, graffiti is plastered on the entrance pillars, and a security fence wrapped in ivy prevents visitors from entering the grounds.
“The building, although in disrepair, is an iconic architectural symbol in our City and region,” said Susan Cezar, Chief Strategic Officer of the City of Des Moines.
The world’s oldest and largest fraternal organization, Freemasonry originally began as a guild for stonemasons during the Middle Ages in Europe and continued as a social group. Today, Masons are often known for their signature lodges, which reached a heyday in construction between 1900 and 1940, according to the Masons in Washington.
But the Landmark on the Sound was unique. While most of the state’s Masonic buildings were designed as lodges, the Des Moines structure was the second-oldest retirement home for Freemasons in Washington, following the first one constructed in Puyallup. There are currently 157 Masonic lodges in Washington, said Brown, and over 100 of those are still owned by Masons. Some buildings host multiple lodges, or Masonic groups.
At the Landmark on the Sound, residents of the retirement home would assign all of their property to the Freemasons in exchange for lifelong care. The last person on such a plan was cared for until her death several weeks ago, said Chris Coffman, grand master of Masons in Washington. Another option for residents included monthly rental payments. When the retirement home was closed in 2006 because of its outdated facilities — for example, the main elevator could not fit a stretcher if medical assistance was needed — the remaining residents were placed in other housing.
“A lot of people had close emotional ties [to it],” said Coffman. He recently received a letter from the daughter of two residents of the retirement home who shared how much she enjoyed visiting the building. After the last resident left the retirement home, it served as an event center for several years, and has sat vacant for around a decade. “One of the hardest things we had to do was to sell it,” Coffman added.
The Freemasons sold the property in August 2019 to EPC Holdings LLC for $11.5 million, and it’s now owned by Zenith Properties LLC. The building is not currently listed as a King County, state or national landmark, according to Cezar from the City of Des Moines, and it was sold without any pushback from local residents.
The Masons submitted an application for a demolition permit in July 2019 as part of the sale. The city is currently waiting for additional materials from the current owners after they resubmitted the demolition permit application in September 2020.
A next step of the process will include an environmental review by the city under the State Environmental Policy Act. “This property is important in the Des Moines community,” said Cezar, adding that government agencies and local residents will have an opportunity to share public comments as part of the review process.
While many Masonic buildings are being transformed throughout the country — some even turning into movie theaters, such as the SIFF Cinema Egyptian Theatre in Seattle’s Capitol Hill and the Ark Lodge Cinemas in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood — Coffman said that most of Washington’s structures remain in good condition. Many of the Masonic buildings continue to serve their original purpose as meeting places for the organization, and some parts of the buildings are rented out to churches or retailers to help defray costs.
While they have not finalized the details of their plans, the current property owners have expressed interest in continuing its legacy as a place for people to come together.
“Zenith Properties is currently working with the City on what makes sense and what the opportunity may be, one of which would be to create a living asset in the community for generations to come,” said a spokesperson for Zenith Properties. “We are looking forward to working together with the City on creating a remarkable place.”