The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board has accepted the nomination of the Queen Anne Masonic Lodge building, not because of the fraternal order’s history there, but because of its original use as the neighborhood’s first telephone exchange.

Lodge No. 242 acquired the building at 1608 Fourth Ave. W. in 1924, renovating it several times since, the masons doing the work themselves.

But the lodge decided to sell the midblock building due to ongoing maintenance costs, which includes a costly seismic retrofit, and decreased membership.

Queen Anne companies R&R Development and Eiffel Tour are partnering to acquire the property, preserve a portion of the building and create townhomes within it.

Before designs can be fleshed out, the 114-year-old building needs to clear the landmarks board, which accepted the nomination on Wednesday, April 17.

Board members were more interested in the building’s exterior and the women who connected Queen Anne residents’ calls for nearly two decades than the interior and what the masons did there.

Sunset Telephone & Telegraph Company constructed the exchange building on Queen Anne Hill in 1905, used by switchboard operators to connect customers until it outgrew its space.

Susan Boyle with BOLA Architecture+Planning prepared the nomination report. She said teenage boys were first used as switchboard operators, but proved too immature for the job, so women replaced them. Boyle said technological advances like the telephone were instrumental in growing the women workforce, and switchboard operators had to meet strict physical and personality standards — don’t yell at the rude person on the line.

Sunset merged with Portland-based Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Company in 1917, and the exchange building moved to a newly constructed building down the street, 1529 Fourth Ave. W., in 1921. The Garfield Exchange building was approved for landmark status in December, and is being redeveloped to include more than 20 new apartment units. The landmarks board found that building was both associated with a significant aspect of cultural, political, or economic heritage and embodied a distinctive visible characteristic of an architectural style, period, or method of construction.

Boyle said the masons were very proud to have held out on the purchase of the exchange building, getting it down from $20,000 to $6,500. John C. Blackford, who negotiated the sale, was given a lifetime membership.

Lodge No. 242 rarely applied for permits when renovating the building, Boyle said, first removing a central stair and putting in a new staircase on the southwest corner, opening the main floor space.

“The Masons came from masons,” Boyle said. “That was their main origin.”

The kitchen was converted from a coal-fired stove in 1938, and the main room was renovated in the 1960s to replace the “hotel style” lamps. Much of the walls are exposed masonry, Boyle said, the exchange building likely not requiring finishes when it was first built.

“During the early 1980s a chair lift was installed [and] in 1992 and 1993 the wiring and plumbing was replaced, and the rest rooms, kitchen and dining room were remodeled,” according to the report.

The Queen Anne Historical Society submitted a letter of support for the nomination based on its exchange and lodge history.

“To me, I think it represents a wonderful example of early adaptive reuse,” Queen Anne Historical Society member Leanne Olson told the board on Wednesday.

The lodge building is located across from the Queen Anne library, she said, and easily recognizable to residents in the neighborhood. The historical society letter does not support landmarking interior spaces, which Olson said have been altered so many times as to not be significant.

The board agreed.

Queen Anne Historical Society member Nicole Demers-Changelo had a differing opinion, telling the landmarks board the building should be designated based solely on its exchange history. The Freemasons were a secret society, she said, and added no value to the community.

Landmarks board member Garrett Hodgins said he felt the same way; that the reason the building was constructed was more interesting.

Boyle said the unreinforced masonry building was challenged by the neighborhood, so the exterior was treated to look more like concrete. Hodgins called that early “south slope Queen Anne activism.”

“It really strikes me that it’s a midblock too,” said landmarks board member Richard Freitas. “I feel that’s important.”

Boyle said the location of the exchange was likely less about attracting neighboring teens and women to operate the switchboards than its topographic height and greater reach to telephone customers.

Landmarks board member Manish Chalana said he wanted to learn more about the exchange’s history and the women who operated it when it comes back for a designation decision on June 5. The landmarks board should designate more buildings with rich women’s history, he said.

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