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The Creation of Beachwood Canyon's Theosophist "Dreamland"

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Arthur Heineman's tentative sketch of Krotona from the September 29, 1912, LA Times.

In 1918, LA Times reporter Grace Kingsley went to visit Krotona, the national headquarters of the Theosophical Society. This idealistic community of around 300 or so was nestled in the hills of Beachwood Canyon, above the expanding village of Hollywood. It featured stunning buildings by some of California's most influential architects, including Mead & Requa and Arthur and Alfred Heinemen. Like most visitors, Kingsley was quickly enraptured with the mysterious commune's architecture and beauty:

Away from the hum of the trolley, your climbing automobile will suddenly at a twist in the road, land you in a wonderful garden, facing a picturesque Moorish house which might have been transported from ancient India. Inside the house, instead of the turbaned, white-robed dreamers of India, whom you feel you have every right to expect, you come upon a group of gentle mannered women, all clad in very long dresses. [Outside] you won't see nor hear any movement … except the birds in the trees, the humming insects in the lazy sunshine, and the daring goldfish in the splashy fountains, while the roses nod to you, and the little Moorish summer houses with their enveloping vines will make you sure you've discovered a bit of dreamland.

[The Krotona Inn. Photo by Cat Vasko.]

The Theosophists were dreamers. "Theosophy, in its abstract meaning, is Divine Wisdom," wrote movement founder Helena P. Blavatsky, who claimed to be a "missionary of ancient knowledge." An esoteric school of thought that strives to foster universal brotherhood and believes in equality of the sexes, the basic truth of all religion, and "scientific" exploration of the unexplained, the modern Theosophical Society was formed in 1875. The Society soon became popular with educated, middle-to-upper class freethinkers in Europe, America, and India. International headquarters were established (and remain) in Adyar, India, on a campus featuring "Indian and British Colonial" architecture.

In 1906, a charismatic Theosophist from Virginia named Albert Powell Warrington, drawing inspiration from Crotona, the commune of the ancient mathematician Pythagoras, wrote a treaty titled "Prospectus of the Crotona Institute." In it, he envisioned an idealized Theosophical community centered around an institute of higher learning. This community would be located in a place boasting "a temperate climate, seclusion, accessibility, virgin magnetic conditions, agricultural, forest, mineral and other resources." Warrington expected the colony to be successful:

There are many people who are tired of the turmoil and bustle of cosmopolitan life, and who would be glad to seek a permanent home under serene conditions, where they would have the assurance of association with cultured people.

[The Krotona Inn. Photo by Cat Vasko.]

After receiving the approval of Blavatsky's successor, Annie Besant—with the stipulation that the land must be located in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Mexico, or California—Warrington began looking for the perfect spot for Krotona, now spelled with a K. In 1912, he purchased 10 acres of the former Charles Hastings Ranch, complete with several Victorian-era buildings, in lower Beachwood Canyon. Warrington gushed about the acreage in a letter to Besant on March 21:

The trolley comes within one long block of our site … one can be in the business center of the city in 30 minutes. On the other hand, twenty minutes walk up the canyon will put one entirely outside all building improvements, and tucked in between charmingly wild canyons, one is as if in the wildest and most far-off mountain retreat. I have never known such an extraordinary combination of favorable conditions … We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden. Working out of bungalows on the property, the Theosophists quickly began planting "exotic" plants, including eucalyptus, pepper, citrus and olive trees, and date palms. The famously innovative and community-minded architect Arthur S. Heineman, who designed Pasadena's Bowen Court bungalows and the country's first motel, San Luis Obispo's Motel Inn, was hired to draw the original plans for the Krotona Institute. The sketch is dominated by buildings "classical in detail and Romanesque in particular." The plans were abandoned, and the community grew quickly along more haphazard lines, with architecture reflecting the Theosophist's "Eastern" inclinations.

[Graphic by Amy Schellenbaum.]

Over the next few years, there was a flurry of building activity at Krotona. Wealthy Theosophists supplied money for surrounding acreage and expensive, in-demand architects. The heart of the commune was the Krotona Inn (now Krotona Apartments), designed in 1912 by the highly influential San Diego firm of Mead and Requa. The firm designed many notable California landmarks, including much of downtown Ojai. Requa would also achieve fame for his buildings at San Diego's Balboa Park. Both Requa's Moorish proclivities and Mead's interest in Native American pueblos can be seen in the completed Krotona Inn. Centered around a lush courtyard, the elegant, stucco complex included guest rooms, a dining room and kitchen, offices for the sect's magazine staff and Krotona officials, a lecture room for many public classes, and a "magnetically charged" esoteric meditation room.

[The Grand Temple of the Rosy Cross. Photo by Cat Vasko.]

The utilitarian science building was where Dr. Strong, a scientist of questionable methods, conducted experiments which could "discern the aura of human bodies." Not surprisingly, it could "only be seen on those who already study the occult." Brothers Alfred and Arthur S. Heineman designed the 1914 Grand Temple of the Rosy Cross. This multi-purpose brick building with "Moorish" accents included a 350-seat auditorium and a basement with ample office space. The auditorium is where the "Krotona Service," a religious exercise combining rituals from many faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, was performed. It was also where lectures on topics like "After Death Experiences of Soldiers Killed in Battle" were open to the curious public.

The private residences of the Theosophists who lived at or adjacent to Krotona were no less impressive. Most of these non-drinking, non-smoking vegetarians lived in the Inn or in efficient Craftsman bungalows. Several of these bungalows were built by the architect Elmer C. Andrus. But many well-off Theosophists commissioned fantastical homes for themselves. There was the socialite Grace Shaw Duff's famed Tenery—three Moorish houses probably designed by Arthur and Alfred Heinemen, featuring Batchelder tiles, surrounding an open courtyard. Next door was a fantastic Italian garden centered around a lotus pond and crowned with an Indian-style kiosk.

In 1918, this garden was temporarily converted into a 1,500-seat amphitheater by Mrs. Christine Stevenson, a Theosophist who would help found the Hollywood Bowl and the John Anson Ford theater. Stevenson's production of The Light of Asia, a play recounting the life of Buddha (and featuring modern dances choreographed by the legendary Ruth St. Denis), played to rapt LA audiences for three weeks in the summer of 1918. The play's massive success cemented the Theosophists' increasingly warm relationship with the Los Angeles public, who appreciated their kooky neighbors' artistic contributions and numerous adult education offerings.

[A house on Temple Hill Drive designed by Marie Russak Hotchener. Photo by Cat Vasko.]

No "kookier" buildings could be found in Krotona, or indeed in all of Beachwood Canyon, than the houses built by the fascinating Marie Russak Hotchener. A former New York opera singer turned world-traveling Theosophical lecturer and leader, Marie was also a self-taught amateur architect. Her most famous creation is Moorcrest (which was on the market for $9 million in 2006), the gargantuan, straight-out-of-The Arabian Nights mansion, inhabited at different times by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Astor. While Moorcrest is now almost completely hidden by landscaped foliage, her bizarre Indian-Islamic-Spanish-Modern style can be seen in all its glory at the smaller, but no less delightfully ridiculous house at 6101 Scenic Ave. Marie stayed in Hollywood after the Theosophists moved on, reading horoscopes for many members of the movie colony, including Mary Astor's one-time fiancé, John Barrymore.

[Krotona 2 in Ojai. Photo by Cat Vasko.]

The city of celluloid dreams soon became too congested and corrupt for the Theosophists of Krotona. In 1924, they moved to a 115-acre estate on the outskirts of Ojai, which they believed was "impregnated with occult and psychic influences." Here they hired the architect Robert Stacy-Judd, famed for later "Mayan"-style works like Monrovia's Aztec Hotel, to build the new Krotona 2 in the Spanish-Mission style. Today Krotona 2 is a lovely, quiet Theosophical retreat, comprised of slightly run-down buildings, a trickle of elderly residents, and beautiful, serene gardens.

And what of Krotona 1? It quickly became the stuff of legend. In the summer of 1926, LA Times society columnist Peggy Nye and her best friend were beyond excited when they heard that a "darling café" had opened at the old Krotona Inn. "Of course, we wanted to see what the building looked like that had been the national headquarters of the Theosophists for so long," Peggy effused. During the visit, they met boyish screen actor Gardner James, who was living in what had until recently been the esoteric meditation room. Peggy described the room that had been left by the Theosophists when they decamped for Ojai two years before.

There is a large dome in the ceiling of the room, with stars and things all lighted indirectly, and there is a Madonna standing on an altar with strange lights coming from the back of some place and making her look positively ethereal. There was a row of push-buttons on the altar, and when we asked Mr. James what they were for, he said that they used to manipulate the chimes. OOOO, can you imagine anything so spooky? Most of the buildings at Krotona 1 were quickly converted into apartments or continued on as private homes, and many still stand today, in various stages of repair. Crammed between the mish-mash of later Beachwood Canyon development, they still delight the eye and seem to be just a bit out of place.
· How America's First Megachurch Changed LA's Echo Park [Curbed LA]
· Curbed Features [Curbed LA]
· Krotona Colony [Curbed LA]