The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Connection: How Sugar Paid for Beachwood’s Garden of Eden

June 24, 2009 § 8 Comments

When the Theosophical  Society relocated from Chicago to Hollywood in 1912, its choice of Beachwood Canyon was no accident. A.P. Warrington, the head of the American Branch, had dreamed of founding a utopian community where Theosophists of all socio-economic backgrounds could live and practice their religion. While the Society’s International President, Annie Besant, advocated Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico or Mexico, Warrington favored Southern California and considered properties in Alhambra, Pasadena, and West Los Angeles before discovering the ten-acre tract at the southwest corner of Beachwood Canyon. (The tract ran approximately between Argyle and Beachwood [W-E] and Primrose and Graciosa [S-N]) 

Beachwood Canyon was the Theosophists’ ideal. Not only did it boast a mild climate and spectacular views in every direction, but its location–at the northern edge of Hollywood–would allow members to live an essentially rural life while holding a variety of non-agrarian jobs. Excellent public transportation, via the trolley that stopped at Argyle and Franklin, was a stone’s throw away.

Just as important was the fact that Theosophists would have a year-round growing season for their vegetarian diet. Beachwood’s microclimate supported not only typical fare like tomatoes and beans but exotic tropicals like avocados, bananas and pineapples. The latter two were already being grown on a farm at the corner of Gower and Franklin. (The fact that Beachwood soil was thin and sandy seems not to have troubled the Theosophists.)

Warrington was ecstatic with his find, writing to Annie Besant:

“…I have just bought, though the generous donation of one or two earnest members, ten acres of land in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking Los Angeles, the valley and the sea in the distance….We can make [it] a veritable Garden of Eden, because the….region we have chosen happens to be one of thse rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything, from the most delicate fruits up to the hardy ones.”

Plans were quickly drawn up for the new community, which Warrington named Krotona, after the 5th Century, B.C., school founded by Pythagoras. The highly regarded architectural firm of Mead and Requa was commissioned to design Krotona’s two most significant buildings: the Krotona Inn (now Krotona Apartments), a combination lecture hall-worship space and living quarters for students; and the Knudsen Residence, home to Augustus Knudsen. Knudsen was a prominent Theosophist and the most important of the “earnest members” whose money bought the land for the Krotona Colony.

Augustus Knudsen was a son of one of Hawai’i’s most prominent haole families. His father  Valdemar emigrated from Norway to Kaua’i in 1856, where he managed a plantation, Grove Farm, and (apparently) owned brothels during his rise as a sugar baron. By the 1870s, Valdemar was not only one of the largest landholders on Kaua’i, but a noted botanist and ornithologist. His importance is reflected in not only in his classic study of Hawai’ian birds but various place names on Kaua’i–Knudsen Road, Anne Knudsen Park, and Knudsen’s Gap.

Kauai's Waimea Canyon, which lies north of the Knudsen Ranch. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Kaua'i's Waimea Canyon, which lies north of the Knudsen Ranch. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Valdemar and his Ni’ihau-born wife, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, had five children. The most prominent, Eric Alfred, was a writer, folklorist, lawyer and politician who served as Speaker of the Hawai’i House of Representatives. 

Eric’s brother Augustus Knudsen was also a writer, authoring two engineering books and one on astronomy. After studying civil engineering at MIT, he returned to Kaua’i to manage the family ranch and hold various positions in local government. Drawn to Theosophy because of  his experiences with Hawai’ian kahunas and their rituals, he traveled to India and joined the Theosophical Society in 1897.  After another decade of ranching and farming on Kaua’i, Augustus Knudsen moved to Los Angeles with his wife and widowed mother. His vocation in Hollywood was publishing an agricultural magazine called Little Farms–and, of course, establishing the Krotona Colony. 

Knudsen’s fortune came from Valdemar’s Kekaha Sugar Company.  Thus Hawai’ian sugar not only bought the Krotona tract but the magnificent Mead and Requa hillside house that Knudsen commissioned for his family at 2117-2121 Vista Del Mar Avenue. Though the building no longer stands–its address is now occupied by the Krotona Apartments’ parking lot and a couple of small apartment buildings–Knudsen’s Hawai’ian roots are obvious in the original plans. Every room opens onto a terrace and the entire third floor is a lanai. In a Spanish Colonial flourish, Mead and Requa included a central courtyard with a garden.

Krotona Apts. Sign with parking lot in background. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Krotona Apts. Sign with parking lot in background. Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

When the Krotona Colony began, Augustus Knudsen called it “an answer to the demand for a more definite exposition of the work called for in the Third Object of the Theosophical Society–the investigation of powers latent in man.” Whether or not Krotona achieved this purpose,  Knudsen played a crucial economic and philosophical role in its development.

On a personal note, I knew none of this when I moved to Beachwood less than four years ago, though I remember inexplicably comparing the Canyon’s atmosphere to that of Kaua’i, where my family has a 50-year history.  It happens that the park named for Anne Knudsen is in Koloa, our home base on the island. A weirder coincidence is that I did all the field research for my undergraduate thesis at Grove Farm Plantation, where Valdemar got his start. Thus when I first encountered Augustus Knudsen’s name while researching Krotona,  I experienced opposing emotions: the shock of recognition and relief that my instincts about Beachwood and Kaua’i had a historical basis.

I am indebted to the following resources and authors:

“A Survey of Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” by Alfred Willis. Architronic, 1998.

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.
_________________
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

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§ 8 Responses to The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Connection: How Sugar Paid for Beachwood’s Garden of Eden

  • Chris Sheridan says:

    Very well written article on an interesting subject…I’m familiar with Theosophy and have been to the Besant building on Beachwood, but didn’t know all this…I’ll never look at that street the same way again! Thank you for sharing your discoveries.

  • Aunt Snow says:

    I think the Knudsen house still stands, it has been horribly remodeled into apartments but it is on Vista del Mar alongside the Krotona steps.

  • Dawn says:

    My dear there is no coincidence here…you are being lead, just as I was lead to you. Reseach the Sinclair family and there connection to Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland….then go back and back in time of the Crusades and peices will fall into place. A family history will appear…. other planned colonies throughout the decades.

  • Helen says:

    Hope, the house still stands. I lived there for about 5 years. The apt house just to the east of the Krotona Flight stairs.

  • Amanda Toulon says:

    Augustus Knudsen was my great uncle, and as the current family historian/ researcher, I would like to make a few corrections to the facts mentioned in this article. Valdemar Knudsen, Augustus’ father, arrived on the island of Kaua’i, Hawaii in 1851 or 1852, not 1856. He became a Naturalized Subject in the Kingdom of Hawai’i five years after arriving in the Islands. He was asked by George Wilcox to oversee the field production of his new sugar farm called Grove Farm in LIhu’e. George was the son of one of the first Boston missionary families to settle on Kaua’i in 1820. Valdemar loved the outdoor work, and continued to learn the Hawaiian language, but as the wet, chilly winter weather brought symptoms of malaria, a recurring fever, his thoughts lead to the warmer, dry lands out on the west side. Valdemar obtained the lease on some Crown Lands, becoming the konohiki or overseer of the lands and Hawaiian people for the king. He never was the manager of Grove Farm, the Wilcox sugar plantation in Lihu’e.
    Several years later, at the request of King Kalakaua, who was seeking income for the Crown in Honolulu, Valdemar escorted an agricultural commission all over the leased lands in search of land appropriate for sugar farming. Although they presented the king with a massive report against such a venture, Valdemar went ahead and planted 100 acres of land behind his home, Wai’awa, and built the irrigation system and mill with his own limited funds. The sugar thrived in the rich soil, and at harvest time, Valdemar went to San Francisco to try to find laborers to harvest the first crop for the king. The cold, wet weather, however, struck him down once again, leaving him delirious in a hospital bed. His wife, Scottish born Anne Sinclair Knudsen contacted the Wilcox brothers of Grove Farm, and asked for their help to save the sugar. They agreed to harvest the crop, and started Kekaha Sugar Company. They took over much of the leased lands, but worked out a fair percentage income for the Knudsen family, also saving their home at Wai’awa.
    There is nothing recorded that ever associates Valdemar with brothels.
    Anne Sinclair Knudsen was born in Scotland, and grew up predominantly in Pigeon Bay, New Zealand where her family lived after her father, Captain Francis Sinclair retired from the British Navy. After twenty years in New Zealand, after her father and oldest brother were lost at sea, the Sinclair family decided to make a new start in Canada. Winter had set in, though, and they were advised to sail to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to spend the winter. They enjoyed life in Honolulu, and King Kamehameha IV decided to invite the family to stay in the Islands by offering them a place to set up a sheep and cattle ranch. They were shown several different tracks of Crown Lands on O’ahu, until they decided upon the remote island of Ni’ihau off the west side of Kaua’i. Anne was about twenty when the Sinclairs moved to Ni’ihau. She soon met Valdemar Knudsen after her brother invited him over for a visit.
    The lands mentioned in the article refer to those on the south side of the island that had been offered to Anne Sinclair Knudsen by the Princess Kamamalu Trust. The princess had died in her early 20’s, and having no heirs, the trust tried to sell the land. Two previous owners released the lands back to the trust before it was offered to Anne. In the old Scottish tradition, Anne had been given a dowry by her mother when she married Valdemar Knudsen, and decided to purchase this property in the Koloa district. Valdemar’s son, Augustus did manage the ranch at Wai’awa his father started on the west side during the reign of Kamehameha III, soon after returning from his sojourn in India, and later, tried to start a sugar venture in the “Gap” with his brother, Eric. Their first attempt failed, but years later, McBryde Sugar Company leased much of these lands, and was successful.
    Augustus had extraordinary spiritual sensitivity, having inherited the Scottish gift of being “fay” or highly intuitive.
    Much Aloha,
    Amanda Toulon

  • Helen says:

    Hope and Amanda,

    Amanda, it is so exciting that you commented! I am so thankful to Hope, for having written so extensively on the Krotona Colony and on Augustus Knudsen.
    I lived in 2 buildings that Augustus built for half my adult life: the Colony on Vista del Mar, and later, the home he shared with Anne Sinclair Knudsen further down Vista del Mar. Both places influenced me greatly, which never made sense until I found this lovely blog and documentary Hope has devoted so much effort to.
    We (my best friend who also lived in the ‘Monastery’ – which is what we called the Colony) were really curious about the history of the building, and we discovered bits and pieces. We knew about the Theosophists and that some of the history was covered in some early pamphlets. One fellow told us the 2 buildings (the Colony building and the Temple behind) were built by a famous ‘mesmerizer’. (Augustus?)

    About 10 years ago, I discovered a book in my husband’s library: The Secret Science Behind Miracles by Max Freedom Long — about the shamanistic Hawaiian religion he named “Huna”.

    This book was powerfully intriguing to me and I’ve spent years learning about Huna.

    Max’s first book on Huna was published very near the time that Augustus died. Max lived in Hollywood.
    So much of what is in Max’s book, seems to be very close to what Augustus would have written, if he had published a book on the religions of Hawaii.
    I find it a disservice to Augustus that all his knowledge of the original Hawaiian religion is not known and has never been published. Especially, since he would have a profound understanding of the beliefs and practices so early in the encounter between the western culture and the Hawaiian culture.

    Helen Driscoll
    Los Angeles, CA
    helen (at) invitesite.com

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