A New Home in the Hills: Augustus Knudsen in Beachwood Canyon, 1916

February 18, 2011 § 5 Comments

The Knudsen House on Vista del Mar Avenue, Hollywood

Augustus Knudsen outside his house, 1916/All photos courtesy Kauai Museum, Augustus Knudsen Archive

In 1916, the Krotona Colony was in its fifth year–and an established institution by the standards of Hollywood, then in its infancy. Augustus Knudsen’s position as a leading member of the Theosophical Society was underscored by the impressive house he commissioned in 1914 from the San Francisco firm of Mead and Requa. Interestingly, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, Augustus’s widowed mother, was the client of record, a clear indication that she funded the construction of her son’s new home. Located at 2117-2121 Vista del Mar Avenue, the house is now an apartment building, and very different in appearance.

Knudsen by the Arcade at the South End of the House

The photo below was taken not at the house but the Lotus Pond, a Krotona landmark that was located just west of Temple Hill Drive.

Augustus Knudsen at the Lotus Pond, 1916

Additional Source:

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

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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

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.
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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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