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

The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon

November 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

The O.E. Roberts Orchard, left, and Clausen's Ranch, right, at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1890/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Although many people think Hollywood sprang into existence at the start of the movie industry, its history as a settlement pre-dates not only the 20th century but the Spanish Colonial period. The area was settled ten thousand or more years ago by Tongva Native Americans, some of whom were still living in Beachwood Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. (It was the Tongva who paddled out to meet Cabrillo’s ship in 1542; they truly were the first Angelenos.)

During the Colonial period, the future Hollywood was part of the San Fernando Mission–its outlying pastures, on which sheep grazed. In 1887, Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their Christian utopia as an agrarian village–one that had more orchards than houses. 19th- century Hollywood produced excellent lemons, poor oranges (used for orange soda, not fresh juice), flowers immortalized by the painter Paul deLongpre, and some rather exotic fruits and vegetables. Among the crops that were grown in Hollywood’s orchards were bananas, figs, apricots, avocados, dates, pineapples and chermoyas.

It was this  bounty, made possible by a frostless climate and more than 300 sunny days each year, that attracted the Theosophical Society to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. The Theosophists were vegetarian, and thus naturally drawn to agricultural self-sufficiency; the perfect climate of Southern California was a major reason for their relocation from Chicago. In a letter to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, A.P. Warrington, the head of the American branch, wrote: 

We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything…

The Krotona Colony included fields and gardens– presumably worked by its members, though I’ve seen no photographs proving it.

The mystery in all of this is how these farmers managed to coax crops out of  Beachwood’s soil. Thin and nutrient-poor, it sits atop solid granite, the result of which is geological stability–we barely feel earthquakes–and the constant appearance of rocks and stones. Since moving to Beachwood 5 years ago, I’ve struggled to make something of my garden, despite assiduous efforts at soil enrichment. Although roses do well with regular applications of compost and fertilizer, vegetables grow with limited success, and only in boxes. Interestingly, the ten fruit trees I’ve planted have stayed true to historical precedent, producing terrible oranges (if any), but wonderful lemons, peaches and apricots. This year, I planted a green gage plum whose first crop I’m eagerly anticipating; more on it, and the “Pineapple Tract,” in a future post. 

Banana trees in Beachwood Canyon, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Additional Sources:

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.

The Story of Hollywood, by Gregory Paul Williams. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005.

Los Angeles City Archives.

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