The Queen Anne Masonic Lodge building is now a designated Seattle landmark, but only its distinctive exterior, which means plans to build two townhomes inside it can proceed.

The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board accepted the building’s nomination in April, but not because of its long history as home to Queen Anne Masonic Lodge No. 242.

The 114-year-old building started as the Sunset Telephone & Telegraph Exchange, the first phone exchange on Queen Anne Hill, in 1905.

The building at 1608 Fourth Ave. W. was sold to the Queen Anne Masons in 1924, after the phone company moved the exchange to a larger building down the street. The landmarks board designated the Garfield Exchange last December, which is now being redeveloped into an apartment building.

Telephone exchanges provided early employment opportunities for educated women, and that cultural significance is what influenced the landmark board’s decision more than its lodge history.

Susan Boyle with BOLA Architecture+Planning prepared the nomination report for Queen Anne companies R&R Development and Eiffel Tour, and was asked by the landmarks board in April to come back with more history about the exchange and the women who worked there.

While the information pulled from old periodicals and documents left something to be desired by the landmarks board, they unanimously agreed that recognizing the building’s history as it related to early employment for women was important enough to approve designation.

“That really makes this building special, for its association with women’s history,” said board member Manish Chalana.

Boyle said the exchanges were staffed almost entirely by young women. “The Hello Girls,” as one news article referred to them, had to be nervy, quick and agile as they connected calls, Boyle said. They also had to follow a strict dress code.

“They were highly supervised,” she said, “and there were reports that they didn’t have aesthetics in the building.”

There’s nothing left of the interior of the Sunset Exchange building highlighting its original purpose, the Masons having made multiple renovations over the past 90 years. 

Several landmarks board members appreciated the rustication of the unreinforced masonry building’s exterior, which is tucked among craftsman homes in Queen Anne. The facade was changed after residents objected to the original design, which would have used plain bricks.

“On this block, I would argue it’s difficult to see this building as prominent,” Boyle said.

One criterion the landmarks board can use to designate a building is its prominence or contrast in siting. Board member Kathleen Durham liked the idea of a utility building blending into a residential neighborhood.

“It almost has this movie-set quality,” said board member Kristen Johnson.

“I think it’s a great piece of neighborhood infrastructure,” said board member Richard Freitas of the building’s “industrial design at residential scale.”

Rich Rogers with R&R Development tells Queen Anne News the sale of the property is expected to close on June 30, and plans remain on track to design two townhomes within the exterior. The hope is the process will move more quickly now with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

As a Seattle landmark, the board’s Architectural Review Committee will play a role in directing redevelopment of the building.

“It’s a quasi-judicial board,” Boyle said. “If they say you can’t do that, you can’t do that.”