The Krotona Colony’s First Session: A Photographic Discovery

April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

First Session/Courtesy Krishnamurti Foundation

The photograph above depicts the opening assembly of the Krotona Colony in 1912.  It appears in Joseph Ross’s  Krotona of Old Hollywood, Vol. I  (Montecito: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989) as well as in my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and seems to represent the ideals and aspirations of Beachwood’s new utopia. A heavily female, racially integrated group sits politely in the Colony’s amphitheater, facing the stage–but who was on it?

First Session/Courtesy Augustus Knudsen Archive, Kauai Museum

The answer was a mystery until I came across this photo in the Augustus Knudsen Archive of the Kauai Museum and recognized it as a photo from the same event. According to the notation on back, Knudsen (at the tree stump podium) was the first speaker.

Thanks to Eric James for the cleanup on the first photo.

Here’s a link to a new book on Krotona by Joseph Ross:  http://www.amazon.com/Krotona-Theosophy-Krishnamurti-Theosophical-California/dp/0925943150/
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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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The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Connection, Part IV: Augustus Knudsen’s Passage to India

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Theosophical Society Headquarters in Adyar, Madras/www.blavatskyarchive.com

In 1896, Augustus Knudsen left Kaua’i for San Francisco. From there, he intended to travel to India and study Hinduism. But in San Francisco, fate intervened when he met the president and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott.

Henry Steel Olcott, seated at center, and Helena Blavatsky, standing behind him, with spiritual leaders in India/www.ookaboo.com

Olcott (1832-1907) was famous not only as Madame Blavatsky’s partner in the Theosophical Society (which he served as lawyer as well as spiritual leader) but as the best-known, and probably first, person of European descent to convert to Buddhism. Before he embarked upon this unorthodox path, Olcott was a Civil War veteran who fought graft and investigated Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In 1874, he was hired by the New York Sun and New York Graphic to investigate “spiritual manifestations” at Eddy Farm. There he encountered Madame Blavatsky, a meeting of minds which led to the founding of the Theosophical Society the following year, and to the establishment of its worldwide headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai) in 1883.

The late 19th century was a boom time for new religions, many of which were concerned with signs of life after death. Olcott’s social stature was shared by many fellow seekers: among his contemporaries who studied Theosophy were William James and Thomas Edison. Olcott’s background as a soldier, lawyer and patriot no doubt boosted the image of Theosophy for those who otherwise would have been skeptical of some of its tenets. 

What attracted Augustus Knudsen to Theosophy was the same thing that drew Olcott’s attentions away from Buddhism: psychic phenomena and occult rituals like seances. In 1896, the newly converted Knudsen traveled to Adyar, where he studied with Madame Blavatsky. By 1898 he was back in San Francisco, where he married Margaret Russell, a Californian with Southern roots.

After their daughter Ruth was born in 1901, Augustus and Margaret returned to Kaua’i. Valdemar had died in 1898, and with only his brother Eric left to run the family businesses, Augustus had a role there. (The youngest Knudsen brother, Arthur, suffered a mental breakdown in his 20’s and remained institutionalized in Boston.) But the marriage foundered when Margaret, a late-in-life mother, became physically and emotionally incapacitated by menopause. According to Ruth,   

[Augustus] kicked her out of the house. And told me later that her illness had interfered with his spiritual development.

The calamity of divorce allowed Augustus Knudsen to make a final break with his life on Kaua’i. Placing Ruth in the care of her grandmother, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, he left Hawai’i, remarried and settled in Hollywood. The house he commissioned on Vista del Mar Avenue would be the gateway to the Krotona Colony, a utopia made real by his devotion to Theosophy–and the family fortune made on Kaua’i.

Additional Sources:

Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, Courtesy Kauai Museum.

Theosophical Society Headquarters, Adyar.  http://www.ts-adyar.org/
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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

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part III: The Indelible Influence of Hawai’ian Religion

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kauai's Menehune Fish Pond/Courtesy http://www.kauaivacation.biz

The Knudsens were major players Kauai’s economy from the late 19th century to the mid- 20th century, producing cattle and sugar and overseeing large tracts of land, but the family’s cultural legacy was at least as significant.Valdemar Knudsen, the patriarch, became fluent in Hawai’ian and made the first written studies of Kauai’s birds and plants. His abiding respect for native customs and religion made him a natural go-between for the Island’s native and haole populations, and his erudition led to his appointment as agent for the Kingdom’s Board of Education. Under King Kamehameha IV, Valdemar became a noble with governing power on Kaua’i.

All five of his children grew up among native Hawai’ians, and in addition to speaking Hawai’ian were well versed in local myths and religious practices. While Eric went on to become Hawaii’s preeminate folklorist, publishing the first English-language books of Hawai’ian myths and legends, his older brother Augustus concerned himself with Hawai’ian religion, a polytheistic faith that incorporated ancestor worship and animism.

Growing up on a ranch in the wilds of western Kaua’i put the younger Knudsens in frequent contact with kahuna  (Hawai’ian priests)–as well as unexplained phenomena. Their sister Ida Knudsen Von Holt writes:

Augustus also claimed to have seeen a menehune on one of his camping out nights. He had been late hunting cattle, and built a fire to keep warm. As he sat eating chocolate and hard tack, he suddenly realized that across from him through the flames he could see a little figure, bushy haired and heavly bearded, and clad only in a malo, and about 18 inches high.

(The menehune, often described as the “leprechauns of Hawaii,” were Hawaii’s pre-Polynesian natives, and engineers of incredible skill. On Kaua’i, they are credited with building the 1,000-year-old fish pond pictured above, as well as the Island’s heiau [temples made of intricately fitted stones]. Though often assumed to be mythological, they probably did exist, though in less tiny form: in Kaua’i’s 1820 census, 65 people described themselves as menehune.)

It was his affinity for Hawai’ian religion that eventually led Augustus to Hinduism, the most polytheistic of the major religions. Back on Kaua’i in the early 1890’s after earning an engineering degree from MIT, and none too happily running the family ranch, Augustus delved further into his newly adopted faith. According to his daughter, Ruth:

…in 1896 he had saved up enough money to go to India. He was sure there was a great connection between India and Hawaii.

But Ruth’s opinion of her father’s religious interests was decidedly jaundiced:

He was interested in the occultism…and black magic.

Additional Sources:

Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, courtesy Kauai Museum.

Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughter of Hawaii, 1985.

 www.kamhcc.org/Hawaiianreligionandmyths.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menehune#cite_note-1
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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

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part II: Augustus Knudsen’s Enchanted Childhood

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Anne Sinclair married Valdemar Knudsen in 1867, she moved from her family’s “forbidden” island of Ni’ihau, whose population numbered in the low hundreds, to the comparatively populous but still rural Kaua’i, 17 miles to the east. Though Kaua’i had some towns–Hanalei to the north, Kapa’a and Lihue to the east, and Koloa to the south, the Knudsens lived on a ranch at the western end of the Island, not far from where the road ends and the Napali Coast begins.

The remoteness of their home, Waiawa, was underscored by its proximity to Polihale, an enormous white sand beach considered by Kaua’i’s natives to be “the place from where the souls of the dead descended to Po in the ocean depths,” according to Ida Knudsen Von Holt, Anne and Valdemar’s eldest daughter.

The Knudsens’ five children–Ida, Augustus, Maud, Eric and Arthur–were born between 1868 and 1875. Boys and girls alike galloped horses, surfed, swam, camped and hunted. From infancy they were taken to visit their maternal grandmother in Ni’ihau, a trip that started on horseback at 2am and ended after a 5-hour crossing in a whale boat rowed by Hawai’ians over rough seas. All the children spoke fluent Hawai’ian, as did their father, and had the peerless survival skills of both parents. Their mother, whose own childhood was spent in the wilds of New Zealand, seems to have been unfazed by danger. Wrote Ida:

I remember once when some one asked Mama how she could  bear to have her children running along the cliffs of the Waimea Canyon, hunting wild cattle, exploring the Alakai Swamp, etc., she replied, ‘If they are so fool-hardy as to fall over [the side of Waimea Canyon], or become lost, I tell them it will be good riddance to bad rubbish.’

But  Anne and Valdemar, both products of prosperous, educated families, were equally dedicated to their children’s formal education. At the ranch, Anne began the day by teaching them reading, writing and music. Then Valdemar would take over, teaching math and German before turning the children loose to collect plant samples for their botany class. An amateur ornithologist who was the first to catalog the Island’s birds, Valdemar also taught his children astronomy and Norse folklore.

The Knudsen children’s home-schooling culminated in a nearly three-year family stay in Berlin and Vienna, where they were enrolled at various academies and conservatories. They completed their educations in Boston, the girls at finishing school and the boys at Harvard and MIT. 

Valdemar Knudsen and His Children in Vienna, 1885

Kaua’i was home, but the Knudsen children’s splendid educations were a springboard for their varied destinies. Ida, a conservatory-trained musician, became a patron of the arts in Honolulu while raising a large family in the adventuresome style of her own childhood. Maud became a talented painter as well as a wife and mother. Eric, in addition to running his father’s businesses, had a distinguished political career in Hawai’i and became a noted folklorist. But it was Augustus who broke with the family, and with Kaua’i. Though he became an engineer as Valdemar had wished, and returned to Kaua’i for a time to run the family ranch, he was far more passionate about astronomy and religion. It was the latter interest, which he attributed to encounters with kahuna (Hawai’ian priests), that drew him to India and Hollywood, places far removed from his childhood paradise.

Additional Source for quotes and photos: Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughters of Hawaii, 1985.
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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

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part I: Anne Sinclair Knudsen and the Ahupua’a of Koloa

January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Anne Sinclair Knudsen

Anne Sinclair Knudsen (1839-1922) was not only the matriarch of one of Hawaii’s most distinguished kama’aina (non-native resident) families but a major landholder in her own right. When she married the much older Valdemar Knudsen in 1867, Anne Sinclair was already an heiress who lived on her family’s private island–Ni’ihau–off the western coast of Kaua’i.

Anne’s widowed mother, Eliza McHutchinson Sinclair, had purchased Ni’ihau from King Kamehameha IV in 1863. For this substantial but arid property, she paid $10,000. (The Sinclairs, a prosperous and highly adventuresome Scottish family, had come to Hawaii after two decades in New Zealand, where they raised cattle and played a significant role in the colony’s development.) Four years later, Mrs. Sinclair gave Anne $10,000 as a wedding present, which Anne used to buy the Ahupua’a of Koloa, a magnificent parcel on Kaua’i’s South Shore. The 6,500 acres stretched from what is now Highway 50 to the Pacific, and included Knudsen’s Gap, the town of Koloa, and Poipu Beach. Because her husband Valdemar also owned considerable acreage on Kaua’i, including the Kekaha Sugar Company, their combined holdings made the Knudsen family one of Hawaii’s largest landowners.

The Tree Tunnel in Knudsen's Gap, Kauai/Hope Anderson Productions

Upon Anne’s death, the Ahupua’a of Koloa passed to her two sons, Augustus and Eric. (A third son, Arthur, had developed major mental illness in his twenties, and died before his mother.) Anne had spent some of her long widowhood in Beachwood Canyon, where Augustus had moved in 1912. The Knudsen house on Vista del Mar Avenue, though Spanish Colonial in style, was Hawaiian in spirit, with terraces off all its room and a lanai that took up the entire third floor. One imagines the elderly Anne Sinclair Knudsen there, staring out over Hollywood while remembering a very different view: the blue waters off Kaua’i, and the whale-shaped island of Ni’ihau in the distance. 

Additional Sources:
Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughters of Hawaii, 1985.
The Knudsen Trust, www.knudsentrust.org
Alfred Willis, “The Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” Architronic, vol. 8 n. 1, 1998.

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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

Under the Hollywood Sign Takes a Vacation (Sort of)

January 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

My trip to Kaua’i has included research at the Kaua’i Museum, whose curator, Chris Faye, kindly allowed me to see the Augustus Knudsen Archive.

Readers of this blog will remember him as one of the financial backers of the Krotona Colony in 1911. A dedicated Theosophist, Knudsen abandoned his family in Kauai to begin a new life in Beachwood Canyon. The Archive,  which includes photos from that era, is distinguished by an oral history by his daughter, Ruth Knudsen Hanner.

More on the Archive, and the Knudsens’ legacy on Kaua’i, in future posts.

Beachwood’s Earthly Paradise: The Lost Gardens of the Krotona Colony

December 10, 2010 § 9 Comments

The Italian Gardens/All Photos Copyright Krishnamurti Foundation of America, except where noted

The Theosophical Society’s Beachwood Canyon sojourn lasted less than 15 years, from late 1911 until 1926, but it produced a planned community of distinctive public buildings and houses, roughly two dozen of which survive. The Krotona Colony’s buildings can be identified by their eccentric architecture, which includes domed roofs, keyhole windows, arched doorways and art glass panels. 

Hope Anderson Productions

Upon closer examination, one can make out details such as the star of David, cross, swastika (an ancient Hindu symbol used also by Buddhists) and lotus, which connote the melange of religions contained in the Theosophical doctrine.

Hope Anderson Productions

Gone forever are the lovely grounds of the Krotona Colony. As I wrote in my previous post, “The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon,” the Theosophists wanted to grow as much of their own food as possible, a desire reflected in the Colony’s fields and vegetable gardens. But–as the map shows–considerable attention and land were devoted to gardens whose purpose was recreational and contemplative. Chief among these was the Italian Gardens, located at the top of Temple Hill. Its formal layout was crowned by a magnificent Mogul-style pergola that provided members a place for reflection, as well as an impressive view of Hollywood to the south.

Map of the Krotona Colony

Hollywood’s burgeoning urbanism would drive the Theosophical Society to relocate to the Ojai Valley in 1926. The Krotona Colony’s public buildings were turned into apartments and private homes; its houses were sold to new, non-Theosophist owners. But the grounds, including the Italian Gardens, were subdivided into residential lots. Houses soon rose up, leaving no trace.
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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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