The old Edmonds Opera House, later a skating rink, now home to the Edmonds Masonic Lodge, stands majestically in the center of the block of Dayton Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. The building serves as a symbol of the town’s history and of its present-day significance.
Edmonds residents and current Masonic Lodge members Roger Barnstead and Steve Pennington have expressed a great love of the building and of its history.
“The building and its members are a ‘Who’s Who’ of Edmonds history,” says Pennington. “George Brackett, several members of the Yost family, Ray V. Cloud, former mayors, business leaders, decorated military members, and a host of interesting characters.”
According to Barnstead, some of these “interesting characters” take the form of ghosts and spooks—and he knows where all of them are hidden. I was privy to that and other insider information, compliments of a personal tour with Barnstead.
Back in 1906, he tells me, Edmonds was a logging town, and the building originally was constructed as a recreation hall for the loggers.
“They called it the Socialist Gymnasium,” Barnstead says. “Then it became the Opera House when the Yost people bought it.”
Barnstead pointed out photographs and watercolors positioned around the building that help explain what the modern version is like. For example, “the doghouse” — a box-like structure formerly located on top of the building — was a curtain loft for theater trappings such as scenery and curtains.
Astonishingly, actual operas were produced while the Opera House still functioned. The current Ballroom had been the nave of the Theater, with hardwood floors and a stage. “They had opera people here who did opera. That was the entertainment,” Barnstead explains. When opera was pretty much wiped out by films, the Opera House became a movie theater.
“Under the building was a livery stable, with mule and horse people. That’s another subset of the spooks that inhabit this place. The dray people.”
That brings us to our first paranormal conversation.
“We have a series of different spooky entities. Horsey people, opera people—the stars, the people who work everything behind the scenes. Crew, stagehands, director, wardrobe et al.”
Evidently there are spooks amongst all those people who still hang around waiting for the next opera. After that came the Odd Fellows, another fraternal organization.
“They still exist, though not to the extent they used to. There are remnants of them all over the place. The floor covering store down the street used to be the Odd Fellows Hall. If you go through that building, you’ll see Odd Fellows stuff everywhere.”
The chief difference between the Odd Fellows and other similar organizations seems to be, of all things, benefits.
“The Odd Fellows have been around a long time, in this country probably before the American Revolution. Unlike most fraternal organizations, they offered insurance programs, like if you lost your job. They took care of their members. Very advanced,” Barnstead observes. “The major difference between that and a Masonic Lodge is that Masonic Lodges don’t promise charity or relief to anybody. It’s given freely, but you can’t demand it of them.”
The Odd Fellows owned the building and the Masons rented it from them, so there were two fraternal organizations in residence until 1948, when the Masons bought the former opera house from the Yost family.
Twelve Steps of a Different Color
The Masonic meeting room, without a doubt the most opulent in the building, is redolent of spirits of famed past Masons like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and George Washington. One can almost hear strains of Mozart’s symbolically Masonic Magic Flute hanging in the air. It’s awe-inspiring.
“In North America, colonies started in the 1600s, and there are lodges dating from that era,” says Barnstead. “It was a European organization that a lot of people belonged to, including Mozart, Frederick the Great (also a composer), Benjamin Franklin, and just ‘regular people.'”
According to Barnstead, traditionally all the Masonic Lodges are situated due east and west. In the meeting — or Masters — room, officers sit in chairs according to direction, principally because, as he says, “The Tabernacle that Moses erected after passing through the Red Sea to give thanks for the deliverance from the Egyptians was situated due east and west, as was King Solomon’s Temple, of which every Masonic Lodge is representative. That’s why the building is shaped the way it is.”
The room is used for diverse purposes. The Sons of Norway and other groups meet here. The Ballroom resounds with the clicking heels of Irish dancers. Stripped of all its Masonic furnishings, the room can host weddings and other events.
“During COVID, we were prohibited from having meetings of any kind, or even having people here,” says Barnstead. “But they could come and work by themselves. One brother worked particularly hard on this room. The columns were all replaced and refurbished.”
The chairs, which look like theater seats, are all remnants from the Opera House. There’s a special seat for the Secretary. The grand piano remains, although the harmonium organ which was once there has been removed.
Masonic education, divided into 3 degrees, functions like a Master/Apprentice program and reflects the values and beliefs of Masonic philosophy.
“Apprentices are given lectures by Masters,” Barnstead explains. “The particular arrangement of 12 steps is about the 2nd degree, which is the lecture of the inner chamber. It has to do with Philosophy and Sciences. The lecture starts with the lowest step and works his way up.”
The steps, in order of importance from the top to bottom, are Astronomy, Music, Geometry, Arithmetic, Logic, Rhetoric, Grammer (sic), Tasting, Smelling, Feeling, Seeing, and Hearing.
Music is second to the top, one of the 7 Liberal Arts and Sciences, and of extreme importance, as the ancient Greeks considered music the purest of all the art forms. Geometry is located just below music on the steps.
“We’re indebted to them, the Romans and the Egyptians,” says Barnstead.
The sturdy altar at times contains certain objects. None of them are sacred but all, altar included, are symbolic. Any brother can bring his own Holy Book to place on the altar, whether Bible, Q’uran, Torah, Buddhist book or other, during meetings. There is no discrimination toward any personal belief. Barnstead believes the supposed secrecy of the Masons is a myth that someone came up with at some past time in history.
One plaque shows all the Masters of the Lodge since the building was built, who are elected in a non-political way.
“I sit over there with the past Masters. One day my spook will be sitting over there spooking people. I can’t wait,” Barnstead says with a laugh. “But it is definitely unnerving sometimes to be in here by yourself.”
The altar is on wheels so it can be pushed out of the way if needed. Above the altar hangs a large letter “G” that lights up, symbolizing Geometry and God.
“The Grand Architect of the Universe. It’s a very popular way to express the Deity,” Barnstead says. “You don’t tell people what deity to believe in, but you have to believe in something, whatever it is, if you’re a Mason. It’s entirely up to you. If you’re an atheist, you won’t qualify to be a Mason. We don’t promise salvation here, either.”
There are specific times when the “G” is lighted up, usually during a lecture, where the candidates end up in the east.
The lecturer says, “Bring your attention to the letter ‘G’,” Barnstead explains. “Then somebody turns the light on. It has a very nice effect on the mind. All lectures are given from memory. They go on 45 minutes to an hour. There’s a lot of memory work that goes into all this. It’s impressive.”
To the right of the altar hangs a large painting of Washington addressing a Mason meeting. I can’t help but think that famous past Masons such as Mozart and Washington must have had good reasons to be a part of these teachings. Barnstead agrees. Masonic history in its entirety is a great way to get information.
“For thousands of years there were three kinds of people: royalty, priests and everybody else,” Barnstead said. “The sciences and Masonry developed together, architecture and building and all that goes with it. Masonry was a place where common people could gain parity with priests and even royals because of what they knew, what they could do. That’s why they closely guarded their secrets so they wouldn’t become common.
“A Mason back in those days could just walk into a village with nothing and make tools out of what he knew in his head. 90-degree angles, straight lines, levels,” he continued. “So much knowledge was in the hands of the Masons that had built the fortifications and cathedrals of Europe. For a long time, nobles who generally tended to be ignorant wanted to get a part of that, so they would follow the stonemasons around, wanted to join their lodge or shop and undergo the apprenticeship to gain the knowledge and insight they couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Barnstead explains that the Guild concept goes back at least 10,000 years, to places in the Far East like the walls of Jericho. The knowledge of how to build walls applied to the building of the Pyramids, Solomon’s Temple and all the wonders of the ancient world.
“Builders did that,” he says. “Not priests, not kings. Regular human beings that had the knowledge of how to do it in their heads. Look what they did. It’s still true today. You take someone who knows how to do something—make music, build buildings, build ships, any of these things. They’re seriously smart people, talented and educated.”
Those types of organizations that came from the ancient world into the medieval and modern world still work that way today with any profession. Even skills like surgery are taught by master to apprentice.
“You don’t pop out of medical school cutting people open. You study under someone who knew how,” said Barnstead, who is enthusiastic about learning from Master to apprentice. “I taught sailors how to be sailors and navigators. It was a Master-apprenticeship program. They don’t know how to do this. We’re going to teach them. No one’s ever showed me a better way to teach people how to do things. To teach mastery of a craft. Wow.”
At the far end of the room, two pillars and spheres represent the pillars on the porch of King Solomon’s Temple. One is Boaz, which means strength; the other, Jachin, to establish.
“Put them together and you have, ‘In strength I will establish my Kingdom.’ The Jews’ promise to the Big Guy,” explains Barnstead. “In addition, flowers denote plenty. The whole column has a huge lecture that goes along with it that explains all the architecture.”
Current membership in the Edmonds Masonic Lodge numbers at 130. There is a plan afoot to restore the ticket booth in the ballroom.
“Before COVID, we were well on our way to getting things back into shape,” Barstead said. One of their big ambitions is to be open for Edmonds’ Christmas festivities, since last year’s event was shut down for the pandemic. “We’re going to have Santa Claus, trees, Mrs. Claus, all kinds of good times,” he said.
Spooks in the Attic
Accessed from a precipitous climb up the stairs from the front entrance that goes directly to the ballroom, is the attic, once the balcony seating for the theater, also used as a roller rink, for square dances with the Checkerboard Squares, and the mechanism for moving the curtain up and down. Two vintage fencing dummies stand as vestiges of Barnstead’s former life as a fencing teacher. The ceiling, seemingly held up by a prayer, also is used for storage.
Here, the footing is difficult. Dimly lit, a bit creepy and appropriate for ghosts. I may write murder mysteries set at opera houses, but I’ve never seen one like this. A clown figure perched in an opening in a wall, small but menacing looking, completes the spooky ambiance.
“You couldn’t make this place up,” Barnstead laughs. “The place used to be spookier if you can believe it. Over there, hanging up, was a witch on a broom, a huge cornucopia and a big spider used for Halloween decorations. Really spooky. Though a new fire alarm system is being put in.”
As Barnstead speaks, the fencing dummies seem to move just a bit.
On the wall heading downstairs from ground level, an eye-catching watercolor, possibly 100 years old, of what looks like Ancient Greece or Ephesus in Turkey, portrays the degrees of Masonry. A mountainous background, pillars, Masonic symbols, and toga-clad people populate the scene with columns, altars, steps and more (photo 8a, watercolor).
Further down hangs a copy of the ubiquitous unfinished Gilbert portrait of perhaps the most famous Mason in history, George Washington.
Masonic Basements and Their Weirdness
From the attic to the basement, a sense of reality sets in with access to the preparation room, where candidates who come in for their degrees change into what Barnstead sardonically calls the “Cooley costume.” Hospital scrubs sometimes have served that purpose.
Barnstead points out a display about a local hero, Medal of Honor Winner Robert Earl Bonney, who was a member of this lodge.
“There are members here old enough to have known him,” says Barnstead. “We had a celebration of him at our 2006 building Centennial here. Prior to WW I, in peacetime, he prevented a ship from blowing up. He’s in our local graveyard. His story got lost in the depths of time,” he adds sadly.
The basement was part of what Barnstead calls “the madness of the Opera House,” with a big door for going in and out, and a loading dock. Legend has it that Masonic treasure is buried in the Masonic basement. That may be true of the lodge in San Francisco, but not in Edmonds, though there are artifacts displayed here.
According to Barnstead, all the old Masonic buildings have their basements and weirdness. I personally found the upstairs creepier, but Barnstead claims more paranormal activity has been recorded downstairs. I was astonished to discover that paranormal investigators exist in the Puget Sound area.
“We’ve had Ghostbusters camped out here twice,” he said. “They said they were picking things up all over the place here. This light comes…” He makes a swishing noise and laughs heartily.
Barnstead admits the building needs TLC. Little maintenance was possible in the last 18 months, but a major clean-up project is planned. He hopes to get community support for that effort.
The basement Green Room was named for the green tile on the floor (now brown) and the green paint everywhere else. Generally, it’s used as a man cave, with dart board and a large-screen TV for sports. But when it’s used as a dressing room for “wedding central”, Barnstead says, “They kick all the men out.”
Pointing out the scullery, he adds, “We’ve had spooks in and out of this place. We’ve seen orbs and things.” Perhaps the spooks have fun trying on all the robes and costumes kept here for Masonic degrees, which are all done like stage plays.
“This is probably the spookiest joint in here. All this stuff gets taken upstairs and we turn it into a Holiest of Holies,” he laughs. “They’ve seen a lot of spooks coming in and out of this place. I believe them.”
The interesting thing about the dining room, he says, is the polished concrete floor. Previously it was made of dirt, most of which consisted of horse and mule droppings.
“The Masons and their families worked at this place to build it from what it was to what it is now. I read one of the wives’ descriptions of how she took 15 wheelbarrows full of animal droppings out of here. She wasn’t the only one.”
Not exactly sanitary for dining, but it wasn’t a dining room then. The walls show markings where the windows were cut and covered up. The parking lot used to be 15 feet lower than it is now. And spooks abound.
“The main entryway is spooky as all get out,” says Barnstead. “I had an experience here once where this woman fell down these stairs that back up to the Ballroom. I was in the attic, and I heard shrieking. I come down here to see a woman had fallen down the stairs. She was fine, but maybe someone pushed her. I don’t know. She was bothering somebody.”
The building next door that houses Barnstead’s studio, built in 1948, was the first Edmonds Post Office. Its history is fascinating as well.
“They got some trucks, went downtown to the Navy piers where all this stuff was laying around that didn’t go to the South Pacific. Somebody said, ‘We want that, and that, grab all those windows over there and we’ll take it down to Edmonds and build a post office with it.’ They came and threw it all out here and built the building. It was a post office, then a beer joint. Then it was a slot car emporium for kids.”
I had never heard of slot car emporium, a throwback to the pre-video game era.
“They had 10 tracks as big as this room—like the race car tracks you buy your kids at Christmas—and had races where the cars ran around,” Barnstead said. “There are still a few of these places in existence. One in Tacoma. It was a big thing.”
Model railroads were incorporated into some of the emporiums. People brought their own trains and ran them around. Evidently Edmonds has its own model railroad place that takes up half of the Amtrak building downtown. Talk about spooky.
“That place has been there a long time. It’s incredible,” says Barnstead. “It had its own pile of spooks. Old guys who’d worked on the railroad track for years and years.”
A must see, I’m told. But that’s for another time.
— Story and photos by Erica Miner