By Scott Schaefer

A grassroots coalition of around 50 community supporters, history buffs and historic preservation experts rallied to preserve the Landmark on the Sound/Masonic Retirement Home outside Des Moines City Hall before the City Council meeting on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

The purpose of the rally was “to demonstrate the tremendous community support for preserving and revitalizing the majestic Des Moines Landmark on the Sound.”

As we previously reported, the historic building first built in 1926 once served as a retirement home for Masons, then most recently as the Landmark on the Sound event center. It was purchased by Zenith Properties, LLC, which is planning to demolish it, but has not yet revealed its plans. The SEPA review deadline has been extended to Aug. 25.

Activities at the event, co-organized by Barbara McMichael, included giving out original Masonic Home commemorative crowns, an interactive “Fun Fact” game, display of an original plein air painting by local Artist Dan Wend and more.

Participants also shared memories of the Masonic Home on a memory board, as well as ideas for repurposing it on a future board.

“There’s so many people who feel strongly about this, but they feel isolated in what they can do, so this is a chance to get people together,” McMichael told The Waterland Blog.

Local historian, filmmaker and lawyer Steve Edmiston agreed.

“I’m here for a couple of reasons – the primary reason is I think we’re at the front end of a very, very long conversation about whether we should preserve something as iconic as the Masonic Home, commonly known as the Landmark on the Sound,” Edmiston said. “There are three of these west of the Mississippi remaining. It really isn’t something that you can replace. It’s not something you can put up a statue to mitigate. It’s either we save it, or we build something else. One of the challenges we have as a community is the developer has chosen not to disclose the plans.

“The only thing being fought right now is should that building remain or should it be, I guess, an empty lot. And that is a frustrating thing when you’re going through environmental and historical and cultural review about the impact to a city. If we don’t know what’s going to replace it with the idea, and so that’s a source of frustration. The building is amazing…like I said, it’s unique. It’s our Stonehenge and I don’t think we should not tear it down, you know, without serious, serious thought about why we do.”

Edmiston has filmed several scenes inside the historic building, including using it in “The Maury Island Incident.”

“We actually used the incredible library at the Landmark as a as a doppelganger for J. Edgar Hoover’s office in Washington DC back in 1947, and the building is just so glorious it could double for a lot of things depending on where you went,” he said. “And while that is a small piece of the pie when it comes to the value of that building, I think that arts and cultural component really resonates and quite frankly can’t be replaced.”

Former Des Moines Councilmember and eight-year member of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Susan White also wants to preserve it.

“Just save it,” White said. “We need to save it. It’s got historic significance. There’s nothing like it in the entire state. And you know, they saved Weyerhaeuser, they can do this. I understand what preservation can do for our community. It’s an economic force. It brings people and it’s worth preserving.”

“I’m a Des Moines resident of 20 years and I’m here just enjoying this great public gathering for preserving Landmark on the Sound as a beautiful architectural masterpiece,” co-organizer Lloyd Lytle Jr. said. “This has been part of Des Moines’ cultural heritage for over 100 years, and we want to come together and preserve it for another 100 years for future generations and turn it into something the whole community and the state and even the nation can enjoy.”

Lytle showed off an “idea board” with suggestions on how to re-purpose the building.

“We’ve got a lot of public input and we want to work with the city, and just have a nice roundtable discussion about what we can do to just make this one of the most amazing places not only in Washington but America,” Lytle added.

Local Artist Dan Wend shared how creating a a mixed-media painting of the historic building inspired him.

“It gave me great respect for the people that built this building,” Wend said. “It’s such a beautiful landmark, and when you paint something like that and you look at the detail, it forces you to really appreciate what went into it, as far as a signature piece of architecture for this whole region. There’s really not much that compares with this. It’s worthy of preservation, and it should be a place that everybody is able to enjoy.”

The rally was held just before Thursday night’s Des Moines City Council meeting, where City Manager Michael Matthias clarified the issue for attendees.

“We appreciate you coming out, and we understand your concern and we share those concerns,” Matthias said. “About 15 years ago or so, the Masons – who are the owners of the Landmark property and building that was built in 1926 – sought to dispose of that property and they went through a process. There were at least five separate contracts to purchase the property. The city met with literally every one of those developers … and our highest priority to the Masons was to retain the building and we shared that with the developers. Some very prominent developers walked away because none of them could figure out how to sustain or renovate the building, the cost was prohibitive and so the contracts lapsed.”

Hear Matthias’ full statement here, which is followed by public comments on the issue:

Here’s more info:

    • There is an online petition that you can sign.
    • The public comment period on scoping for the Environmental Impact Statement will end on Aug. 25, 2022 at 4:30 p.m. Submit comments through the City’s online comment form.
    • An online Public Scoping Meeting is set for Aug. 15, 2022 at 6 p.m. The meeting will include a short presentation about the proposal, the SEPA process and how to provide comment. Public comments will be received after the presentation. Those wishing to provide a verbal comment at the meeting should register in advance here.
    • The City of Des Moines website on this project is here.
    • To volunteer, or for more info, please email [email protected] and/or [email protected].

Photos courtesy Lloyd Lytle.