Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Light in Hollywood

Readers of this blog probably already know what happens when I start researching something that piques my curiosity. Together you've come with me to learn about the Passages of Paris and the tawdry world of an L.A. taxi-dance hall; you've joined me as I explore the journeys of my father's family and [The Man I Love]'s grandfather and his life in L.A.

Well, hop aboard, because our recent discovery of Hollywood's historic spiritual colony known as Krotona has uncovered some wonderful stories I'd like to share with you. This is Part One.

A postcard view of Krotona Court

In 1912, in Hollywood, California, Mr. A.P. Warrington, with donations from wealthy followers, purchased some 11 acres north of Franklin Avenue, in the foothills of Mount Hollywood, for a group called the Esoteric Society. There would be educational centers, meeting rooms, gardens and retreats. He called it Krotona, after the mythological school established by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras.

Warrington was a follower of Mrs. Annie Besant, leader of the Theosophical Society, a religious group based in Adyar, Madras, India, but begun in 1878 in New York State. Besant had taken over leadership of the Society after the death of its founder, Madame Helena Blavatsky. The Esoteric Society was an elite group, her inner circle.

Warrington described the site in a letter to Besant, whom he addressed reverently as “My dear Mother”:
This is the most choice little spot I have ever found. It is on an elevation and at the foot of the hill, to the South, lies Hollywood and Los Angeles, and immediately around the hill are palatial homes of the very rich. To the West the same, with an unusually beautiful view of a lovely little vale; to the East and extending on up into the mountains is a charming little canyon...And to the North, there are the beautiful mountains, our site being right in the lap of them. The trolley comes within one long block of our site.

Theosophy translates as "god-wisdom.” As Theosophists, Warrington and Besant both believed in noble beings who existed to guide humanity toward perfection, over the course of many reincarnated lives. The worlds’ religions were attempts by the Masters to lead humanity to the Absolute Truth, and thus all religions are valid. Truth was found in the study of philosophy, arts, science and astrology. They believed in the occult; and believed certain people – themselves – were naturally receptive to spiritual messages.

Hollywood viewed from Primrose Avenue in the Krotona Colony in 1925

Architects Arthur S. and Alfred Heineman were hired to design the campus. Buildings already on the site were remodeled for colony use. Small bungalows were quickly erected to house staff.

One of the original bungalows

On July 2, 1912 - an astrologically favorable date - a ceremony marked the laying of the colony cornerstone. A processional of robed guests, followed a Grand Marshall to the blast of a trumpet, “in the subdued summer sunlight, down the winding lane among flowers and trees.”

A copper casket was buried beneath the stone, decorated with palm fronds, bearing portraits of Society leaders, golden tokens, copies of Society by-laws, the works of Theosophist scholars, and copies of the local daily papers. According to Masonic customs the stone was squared, leveled and plumbed, and anointed with water, wine, oil and salt. A wealthy benefactress, Mrs. Broenniman gave a dramatic recitation of the Birth Chant of the Omaha Indians, calling to the Sun, Moon, all the elements of weather; to the hills of the Earth, and to all animals, birds and insects to smooth the colony’s future.

It’s unclear where the cornerstone was actually laid. An architectural rendering of the campus by the Heinemans show a large white administration building, but there appears to be no trace of such a structure in Krotona. An existing house on Primrose Avenue was remodeled for use as the main administration office. Two other houses called the Brown House and the Yellow House were home to colony activities.

The colony's Science Building, today a private residence

On July 5, 1912, the first Summer School term began. Some 80 – 90 pupils attended courses on theosophy and science, Esperanto, Parliamentary procedure, Pedagogy, Psychology and Vegetarian Diet.

As the summer went on, more workers joined the colony with their families. Their children played idyllically on the wooded slopes and swung on swings. The children were organized by age into groups, from the Lotus Circle for the youngest, to the Golden Chain, where they were taught to chant “I am a link in the Golden Chain of Love that stretches round the world…” Teenagers joined the Round Table, based on the Arthurian legend.

Life at Krotona was simple. Alcohol and tobacco were forbidden, and most members were vegetarians. In his book, "Krotona of Old Hollywood" Joseph E. Ross describes the daily routine. Everyone rose to work by 8:30. At 12:15 they ate a communal vegetarian lunch. They worked until dinnertime at 6:00 and then in the evening came together for meetings and classes. There were readings of inspirational literature and stories. Wednesday was for business. Mr. Augustus Knudsen taught a class on The Bhagavad-Gita. Friday evenings the Order of the Star in the East conducted ceremonial rituals. Saturdays were for music; piano, phonograph and song, selections from "Parsifal" by a gentleman member. Animated discussions debated what Beethoven would compose if he were reincarnated, or the techniques of harmonization in the Greek mode. Each night at 9:00 pm, an Evening Meeting sent all off to bed with serenity.

A side gallery of the Krotona Court

In fall of 1912, construction began on the Krotona Court. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Mead & Requa. It would house a library, a book publisher, and the magazine produced by the Society. Plans included dormitory space for visiting disciples or those who wanted to live more simply and a vegetarian cafeteria with an outdoor eating space. Mr. Warrington’s residential quarters were located on the second floor over the building entry.

The building was designed in the Spanish revival style, an arched entry leading to a central court with function rooms opening onto it. At the rear, a domed Esoteric Room opened off the second floor gallery. Within its Moorish-style interior was a built-in altar positioned to focus the energy of combined meditation toward the mystic East.

The courtyard at Krotona

On October 1, the birthday of Mrs. Besant was celebrated with readings, stories, and musical tributes. Each guest placed a flower before her portrait, whose frame was entwined with green branches.

On Halloween, the children performed a play, for a ten cents admission to fund a future childrens’ library. The stage was decorated with jack-o-lanterns, and the tickets with drawings of black cats.

In November, 27 of the colonists shared a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner. The menu included a turkey substitute, made of lima beans, corn flakes, and “dressing,” served with mashed potatoes and gravy, spinach, a salad of cottage cheese, pimento and nuts, and cranberry sauce, olives, and other relishes. Dessert was raspberry ice cream and cakes. The table was decorated with bouquets of pink carnations.

Krotona Court, with the completed Temple of the Rosy Cross to the southwest

In spring of 1913, when Krotona Court was completed, Miss Sarah J. Eddy contributed three large inspirational paintings of mystical themes to hang in the Assembly Hall. Another donor gave an 18th century Japanese gong for ceremonial use.

The Knudsen house today

In 1914 A wealthy benefactor from Hawaii, Mr. Augustus Knudsen and his wife built their grand villa where Vista del Mar curved to climb the hill. The three-level villa had large rooms for entertaining that opened broad arcaded terraces to the views below. A flight of grand steps, with arches and fountains, led down to lower Vista del Mar, to access the trolley lines on Franklin.

A glimpse of the Temple today, converted to apartments

Also in 1914, a related group, led by Marie Russak, a Besant protégé, formed the Temple of the Rosy Cross, based on the ideas of medieval Rosicrucianism. The Krotona Court complex was expanded with a larger assembly hall Temple, featuring stained glass windows with the "Rosy Cross" motif.

The stained glass window of the Temple, now an apartment building

In 1915, a large rambling structure known as the Ternary was built on Temple Hill Drive. It was three dwellings connected by a courtyard, and the home of Grace Shaw Duff, a celebrated lecturer from New York and other members of the inner circle.

The Ternary today, converted to apartments

Beyond the Ternary lay a lotus pool and the Greek-style outdoor amphitheatre where music and dance programs were performed. Beyond that, an Italian Garden included a Moorish-style kiosk or pagoda. Poems and stories published in the Theosophist magazines described the beauty of Krotona.

As one visitor put it in 1914:
It is especially lovely at night when one gazes down on the thousands of twinkling lights as the sea reflecting the starry firmament above. But the most indescribable part is the wonderful atmosphere of serenity and peace and power that broods over it.

Another view of the courtyard

The history of the Theosophical Society is as complicated as that of any human institution. Internal conflicts split the group; the old guard weakened and incoming members brought new ideas. The Hollywood real estate boom destroyed the rural serenity of the site. The group eventually relocated to a site in Ojai, in Ventura County.

It is hard for me to write about this without being unintendingly condescending. I don't believe in the stuff they believed in. Reading the story from nearly 100 years later, and knowing the history of Hollywood’s penchant for cults, quackism, and charlatanry, it’s easy to judge these folks as naïve - or even goofy. I am not a religious person, and for me, the idea of spiritual visitations, messages beyond the grave, and reincarnation seems ridiculous.

Stained glass lights beside a door in Krotona Court

On the other hand, there is something touching about the sincerity of the foundation of Krotona, and the dedication of its original settlers. For a brief time, they seemed to transcend the intrigue and political scheming that soon convulsed the Theosophic Society, both in the U.S. and worldwide. For a few short years, from 1912 to 1922, by all accounts the colony was a special place to be. The contribution it made to Los Angeles in the arts, in film and in this neighborhood, is still remarkable.

We'll explore more about Krotona, its people, and the peculiar ability of Los Angeles to attract and nurture an amazing array of cults, fads, and spiritual seekers and self-improvers.

I learned a lot about Krotona from these two sources:

Joseph E. Ross, "Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913 Volume I," El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989

Alfred Willis, "A Survey of the Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony Hollywood," Architronic,

Historic photos from the Los Angeles Public Library.


Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

Wow! So interesting. I love the converted residences.


I had never heard of this.

unmitigated me said...

A little earlier (1848) and in New York was the Oneida Community. Very amusing:

Anonymous said...

I've been working my way backward through these posts, but I still find it fascinating. You have done a great deal of research!

On the positive side of these communities, the gardens look wonderfully serene.

MKR said...

Excellent presentation. Joseph Ross has also written a couple of more books about Krotona after it moved to Ojai. Another new book is expected soon.