clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

8 Notorious Los Angeles Cult Locations: Then and Now

New, 37 comments

Los Angeles is known for a number of wonderful things—beach babes, tasty waves, sitcoms about people in their twenties trying to make it through this crazy thing called life—but it's also been home to some pretty heinous shit—race riots, wildfires and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno come to mind, and so do cults. LA has been home to a number of awful cult-related events over the decades, but time constantly marches on. For Cults Week, Megan Koester visited eight once-infamous locations to see what they're up to today:

The Peoples Temple
1366 South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles

[1925 photo via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; right by Megan Koester]

Then: Built in 1912 as a First Church of Christ, Scientist, Jim Jones and his merry band of misfits took over this now-historic monument at the corner of Hoover and Alvarado in 1972. It served primarily as a recruitment center for the People's Temple of the Disciples of Christ (the church's actual headquarters was located in San Francisco) before being abandoned in 1977 when members fled to Guyana. You know what happened next.
FUN FACT: The residents of Jonestown didn't take their own lives by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid—rather, grape Flavor Aid was the last thing they consumed on this mortal coil. (You'd think they'd treat themselves to the good stuff, what with it being their last day on Earth and all, but what do I know?)
Now: The Spanish-language Iglesia Adventista Central, a Seventh Day Adventist church that has 377 "likes" on Facebook, has been in the building since 1979. It's conveniently located across the street from a Numero Uno Market, which, by the way, has great produce prices (if that sort of thing appeals to you).

The Source Restaurant
8301 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood

[Left photo via The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and The Source Family; right by Megan Koester]

Then: Ah, the Source Family. Connoisseurs of free love and expensive health food, the group of fresh-faced free spirits paid the rent on their mansions in the hills with the money they made at The Source restaurant, a cash cow that, at the peak of its popularity, was grossing $10,000 a day (and appearing in Annie Hall). Source Family leader Father Yod (née Jim Baker, father of three, husband of 14, acquitted murderer) sold the place in 1974 and moved to Hawaii, where he soon perished in a freak hang-gliding incident surrounded by his loving "children."
Now: The Sunset Strip is the fucking worst and the building that used to house The Source restaurant is right smack dab in the middle of it. It's now home to the Cabo Cantina, which was playing "Sweet Home Alabama" as a mulleted mouthbreather shoveled nachos into his gaping maw when the above photo was taken.

Home of May Otis Blackburn and Ruth Weiland
355 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles

[Photo via Megan Koester]

Then: The Blackburn Cult, aka the Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, formed in 1922 in an unassuming apartment on Bunker Hill before eventually moving to a secondary location in the Santa Susana Mountains, was the definition of a family affair. Run by a mother/daughter duo, May Otis Blackburn and Ruth Weiland, the cult's activities were the stuff of lore, with reports ranging from animal sacrifice to straight-up murder. The cult ceased to exist when mama May went to jail for stealing $40,000.
Now: The original building is long gone, replaced with an overpass flanked by two nondescript, personality-deficient skyscrapers housing the offices of Charles Schwab and Wells Fargo. The banks are more fearsome, though less quaint, than mother-daughter grifter murderers.

Home of David Berg, leader of The Children of God, aka The Family International, aka Family of Love, aka The Family
1821 Oakden Drive, Los Angeles

[Photo by Megan Koester]

Then: In his mid-twenties, David Berg, founder of the Children of God cult, lived with his mother and first wife in this Laurel Canyon home, their hillside retreat after long days spent proselytizing. It "was a very happy time," he recalled, "to be married and have a wife to fuck whenever I wanted to."
FUN FACT: Speaking of fucking, the Children of God used "Flirty Fishing," a form of religious prostitution, to convert men to their cause. Women who participated in Flirty Fishing were referred to as "God's Whores." The practice lasted until 1987, when AIDS sorta threw a spanner in the works.
Now: It's your average Laurel Canyon house, with sweeping views, an infuriatingly small roadway, and a Prius parked outside, owned by a guy who was wearing a baseball cap and hoodie (an outfit I like to call "The Television Writer") when I approached.

Sharon Tate's House
10050 Cielo Dr, Beverly Hills

[1969 photo via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; right by Megan Koester]

Then: Built in 1944, the house where the Manson Family did some of its most devilish work was occupied by a number of stars, including Carey Grant, Henry Fonda and Candice Bergen, before being rented by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. The original house has been torn down—the final resident, musician Trent Reznor, built a recording studio in it he tastefully called "Pig."
Now: The new house's address, 10066 Cielo, is the top result when you enter the number 10066 on Waze. Jeff Franklin, the creator of Full House and something of a weirdo, lives there now, but a "for sale" sign out front indicates he's ready to jump ship.
FUN FACT: The first time I tried to photograph the house, it was (unwisely) at night—when the owners turned their floodlights on me, I nearly pissed myself in fear!

Symbionese Liberation Army/LAPD Shootout
1466 East Fifty-Fourth Street, Los Angeles

[Still via 1974 footage; right by Megan Koester]

Then: This site hosted a shootout between the Symbionese Liberation Army and the LAPD on May 17, 1974—six SLA members, including leader Donald DeFreeze, died in the two-hour tussle, one of the largest shootouts in American history. It ended when the house burned down.
FUN FACT: Patty Hearst, who at the time was still a member of the SLA, watched the shootout unfold from her Disneyland-adjacent motel room.
Now: Surrounded by churches, bodegas, and auto repair shops, the greenery-covered house that's been built since rests on a regular sleepy street in central LA.

Synanon Headquarters
1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica

[Undated left photo via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; right by Megan Koester]

Then: Synanon was founded in 1958 with a noble goal—to help rehabilitate drug addicts. In the ensuing decades, however, it took a slightly more nefarious turn, eventually becoming the Church of Synanon. Women residents of the facility were forced to shave their heads, men were forced to get vasectomies, and both sexes were isolated from family members. The church disbanded in the late '80s amid allegations of murder and tax evasion.
Now: A luxury hotel called the Casa del Mar, ocean view rooms can be rented for $500 per night. Being surrounded by the ghosts of tortured souls, though? That's free.

Unification Church Recruitment Center
1929 Hillhurst Avenue, Los Angeles

[Photo by Megan Koester]

Then: While it still exists now, the Unification Church's heyday was in the late '70s and early '80s—in 1976, founder Sun Myung Moon spoke in front of 300,000 people at the Washington Monument. This former Unification Community Center served as a recruitment office for the cult, which specialized in brainwashing and tax evasion.
Now: Home of Alcove, a bourgeois brunch locale, cult activities no longer take place here. If you ask me, though, Alcove is squandering a golden opportunity to make even more money. Brunch, after all, is an excellent recruitment tool. —Megan Koester
· An Introduction to the Long History of Los Angeles Cults [Curbed LA]
· Cults Week [Curbed LA]