by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Several posts on this blog, including one a couple of days ago on the Mazdaznan sect, have dealt with some of the esoteric manifestations of philosophical, religious, and spiritual belief and practice in Los Angeles in the early 20th century and tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings is another notable and interesting example.
In 1913, the Krotona Institute of Theosophy was established in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains portion known as the Hollywood Hills in the recently subdivided tract of Beachwood Canyon, developed by Albert H. Beach. As is so often case, those involved in the creation of the enterprise had far more ambitious plans for the 15-acre parcel, but what was constructed was an interesting compound with Moorish, Pueblo, Spanish Colonial and other architectural styles melded in a picturesque melange.
The photo, though it has a 6 June 1923 stamp from the Newspaper Enterprise Association, has an earlier one from 5 November 1913 and the latter is probably not long after the image was taken, showing the complex as nearly finished, given that there seems to be some construction material at the right side of the main building. The former date likely reflects a reuse of the image after the property was sold and the institute was being readied for a removal and reopening in the Ventura County town of Ojai.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by the Russian-born Helena P. Blavatsky, who concocted a syncretic system emphasizing masters of wisdom from esoteric forms of thought from East and West, and Henry Olcott and William Judge. The international headquarters was established three years later in Adyar, India, where it remains today, but, while Blavatsky claimed to have access to a cadre of “Great Masters” who were leading the spiritual evolution of the human race, a former valued employee went public with accusations of fakery and an 1884 British report proved to be damning.
Still, five years later, English atheist Annie Besant was completely convinced of the legitimacy of Theosophy and not only converted but became Blavatsky’s successor of the esoteric division after the founder died in 1891, while Olcott headed the international association. Judge, who was in charge of the American operation did not approve of Besant’s assumption of that role and dissociated the operation in the United States from the international association. After he died in 1896, Katherine Tingley took the reins and moved to the headquarters to Point Loma near San Diego.
The Beachwood Canyon project, however, was under the auspices of the international association led by Besant and was launched in 1912 with the purchase of the land, spearheaded by former Virginia attorney Albert P. Warrington, who became the founding president of what was dubbed the Krotona Institute of Theosophy and which dealt with those esoteric elements of the system overseen by Besant. Defined by the Institute on its website:
Theosophy is an ancient or ageless wisdom – perennial truths about life and the universe known to sages of long ago, and perceived by all sensitive persons in all times and places.
The Theosophical worldview emphasizes oneness – the idea that the entire universe, including each one of us, shares a profound unity with everything else, so that whatever affects one affects all. It says that we are all on a spiritual pilgrimage to realize this oneness through loving relationships, living in harmony with nature, and service to the greater good.
Krotona reflects this ancient, yet evolving, worldview in all our activities. Our resident community is dedicated to a shared life of ahimsa or harmlessness, meditation, study and service. Our aim is to realize that Theosophy is not just an idea, but a way of life.
The 29 September 1912 edition of the Los Angeles Times, which generally looked askance at non-traditional belief systems and organizations, wrote of the new enterprise, stating that “there is to be a collection of buildings thoroughly unique both in architecture and purpose” with up to ten structures, designed by Arthur S. Heineman (best known for his design of the first motel, in 1925), that “are to be the nucleus of a community plan which calls for the construction of a large number of private homes and flats” for Theosophists.
Warrington was interviewed and noted that there was no connection whatever with the Point Loma headquarters and institute. It was added that the name “Krotona” was derived from an ancient Greek school “for free instruction and intercourse” with the idea to be applied at the Beachwood Canyon complex. Further, the Times reported that “every resident is to be a worker, contributing to the material as well as the spiritual life of the community.” Put another way, “each communist giving as his means, health and disposition permit, freely of his thought, time and labor.”
The structures were to include an administration building, a masonic hall, and houses and apartments, with the latter to be placed on the adjoining steep hillsides and in the Pueblo style of architecture. Later, the complex was to include “a non-denominational university” with the instruction the arts, philosophy and sciences, but “the crowning feature” was to be a temple with a capacity of 2,000 persons and including eight chapels “named after and dedicated to the eight world religions.”
The grounds were to be lushly landscaped and include drives, walkways, pergolas, an esplanade and an amphitheater where talks were to be presented each day. Moreover, “the theosophists propose to make Krotona almost self-supporting and will grow their own vegetables and fruits. As for the construction of the buildings, they were to have hollow tile walls with white plaster and a classical scheme with Romanesque architectural stylings, though “with modifications to suit rational construction under the conditions where the buildings are to be erected.” A tentative sketch by Heineman was included showing the audacious concept.
Subsequent programs were frequently offered in such locales as South Pasadena and Long Beach, presumably because membership was stronger in those areas. Among the featured presenters were opera singer Marie Barnard Russak and attorney Carlos S. Hardy, who went on to be a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, though his Theosophist connections appear to have been severed, or at least more muted, by the Twenties.
In March 1914, the Times reported the Beach and his Los Angeles-Hollywood Homes Company sold land adjoining the Krotona complex to Henry Hotcher, a New Yorker whose acquisition “is said to be in harmony with the plans of the Krotona Institute to have more of its workers settle near the community center.” One of these, it was stated, was Russak, who also had a home at the international headquarters at Adyar and that she and others “are now having plans drawn for dwellings,” though whether any such houses were actually built is not known.
By early 1915, newspaper notices and advertisements mentioned lectures, concerts and other events held at the Institute, the address of which was simply “North End of Vista del Mar Ave.,” with only later a street number of 2130 assigned to what was still very much an undeveloped area. That summer, the Los Angeles Express reported that a $7,500 mortgage, the last of what had been $12,500, for the facility was burned at the San Francisco convention for the American section of the Theosophical Association to celebrate its being paid off. The value of the property was said to be $110,000, with $50,000 comprising the land and the rest involved in the buildings, including the main structure, office, a group of bungalows and “Krotona Court.”
Shortly after the United States entered the First World War in spring 1917, the Institute hosted a lecture by key Theosophist Louis W. Rogers on “War and Its Influences.” The speaker told the assemblage, “war is a diabolical necessity at the present stage of human evolution, but the race will have evolved beyond it when it is able to establish self-government all around the earth, and the present conflict will do that.”
Rogers continued that autocracy was the only realistic form of government in early human history, but now “for the manhood of the race anything less than self-government is an insult.” With the current situation being one of “democracy against autocracy” there could only be room for one and he argued “we cannot now stop short of world-wide democracy.” There was no way to allow for “government of a weak people by a strong without the consent of the governed.”
Yet, as American forces increasingly took the battlefield through the first half or so of 1918 and patriotism became much more marked and public, while fears of communism (following the Soviet revolution in Russia the prior year) and disloyalty were increasingly becoming more manifest, suspicious eyes turned on the “communistic” Krotona Institute. At the end of July, the national convention of the American section was held at the site and the Times stated:
The most extraordinary of the many bizarre matters which have emanated from the Krotona Institute of Theosophy at Hollywood . . . came to light yesterday in the form of a well-defined and circumstantial report that Mrs. Annie Besant, “Mother of India” and international head of theosophy, has taken up her residence at Krotona and is living there in seclusion during the period of the war.
It was averred that her whereabouts were considered important for the British and Allies, but it was also stated that it “has been observed [that there is] a marked stimulation of the propaganda among the theosophists for the spread of Buddhism.” Adduced as proof of this was the current production of the play “Light of Asia,” whose writer was Christine Wetherill Stevenson, who went on, though, to pen and produce the very successful “The Pilgrimage Play,” which, because it about Christ, was obviously far more acceptable to the conservative Times and others in the city and region.
The paper continued that the “Krotona service” was an amalgam of “Buddhism, Parseeism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and other oriental faiths,” though it was noted that there was a Christian element through a mass of the “Old (Not Roman) Catholic Church,” though there might have been a hint of disapproval for this, as well. Yet, the celebrant announced that there was tension between this Church and the Theosophists “and he urged that Christianity be given a chance” while praising Buddhism as “a pure and noble religion.”
The Times also reported that “the patriotism of certain of the Theosophists at Krotona has been challenged” and that “it has been asserted that they have been sending theosophic literature to army camps” while propagating Besant’s works among American soldiery and Rogers’ criticisms of British rule in the Raj in India. In turn, Warrington “has repeatedly emphasized the patriotism of members of the society” and that they were against autocracy and were “true Americans” without any desire to alienate the British or the Allies.
In the postwar years there were summer courses of several weeks’ duration with offerings in folklore, mystic Christianity, myth and symbol, occult chemistry, psychology, psychotherapy, and vibratory physics and lecture on such topics as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and a Persian speaker on race relations, while the campus, including a library and cafeteria, with vegetarian meals, were open every day. In 1920, however, Warrington, after eight years, stepped down to plan for a worldwide lecture tour and was succeeded by Rogers. There was a notable decline in press presence after that point, but there was also another important issue.
Namely, the Hollywood area was growing, as was most of the rest of the greater Los Angeles area because of yet another massive growth and development boom that emerged at the onset of the Roaring Twenties. It was decided, as the quiet and isolation that was sought a decade before was increasingly being reduced, to move the Institute to Ojai and the Hollywood property was sold, in late 1922, to developers of the Hollymont tract.
The next owner of the Krotona Institute compound, sold as a unit, was New Zealand-born actor, writer, producer and director Rupert Julian, who was widely known then and is all but forgotten today (he was the director, but wound up being stripped of credit, for the Lon Chaney smash, The Phantom of the Opera). Julian and his wife resided in the Krotona Court, leased out units to Hollywood actors and others in the industry and, in late 1926, opened the Krotona Inn Cafe, though the eatery had a short life.
There were grand plans to build a Ritz-Carlton hotel on the site, but, when the project was being publicly discussed in September 1929, for example, no one could foresee that the Great Depression would burst forth the following month with the crash of the stock market in New York City.
The hotel project faded away, while much of the Krotona campus remained intact as private residences and some of it remains so today. You can read more in this Times article by Sam Watters and friend of the Homestead Hadley Meares’ more detailed post on Curbed Los Angeles, while there is information about the Krotona Institute in Ojai.