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.
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.
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.