Reviving Bananas in Beachwood Canyon

September 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Banana Tree/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

Last October I wrote about Beachwood Canyon’s early 20th century fame as a producer of bananas, avocados and pineapples. (https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/bananas-of-beachwood-canyon-and-los-feliz/) J.B. Rapp’s Farm, located near Franklin Avenue and Gower Street, was the first place in the continental United States to produce such exotic crops commercially, and there is no reason to it wouldn’t have continued to do so if land values had stayed low. But Hollywood’s rapid transformation–first into a garden suburb of Los Angeles, then the center of the movie industry–caused land values to rise dramatically after 1900. By 1920, Hollywood was a city, its recent agrarian history remembered mainly in old photographs of farms and orchards, and by its street names–Orange Grove, Lemon Grove, Cherimoya and Tamarind.

For the Theosophical Society, Beachwood Canyon’s mild, frost-free climate was the deciding factor in its relocation here in 1911. The Theosophists wanted nothing less than to create a new Garden of Eden, and their colony, Krotona, was dotted with gardens. After the Theosophists moved to Ojai in 1926, their gardens became houses, forgotten except for a map and a few photographs.

Recently I decided that my living room needed a better view, so I planted four banana trees with red-green fronds outside. They instantly provided shade, color and movement, transforming the house as well as the hillside on which they were planted. Watching the fronds wave gracefully in the breeze has been a respite for me in an otherwise vacationless summer.

Because I was focused on appearance, I chose trees that produce a flower but no edible fruit. But my next purchase will be a fruiting banana–if possible the Lacatan, which produces small, creamy-textured bananas with red skins. (I don’t like the Cavendish, the yellow banana that has been the world’s commercial crop since the 1930s, but know it will grow in Southern California.) In time, I hope to have a small grove of banana trees–a living reminder of what the Canyon once was.

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The Pineapple Tract of Beachwood Canyon

September 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Clausen's Ranch, which includes the future Krotona Hill, c. 1895/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

While doing research for my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I found my way to the Los Angeles City Archives, which keeps bound volumes of the many laws enacted by Hollywood during its brief period (1903-1910) as an incorporated, self-governing city. While I was there, I also studied early 20th-century Hollywood maps, and was fascinated to see the area north of Franklin between Beachwood and Gower labeled “The Pineapple Tract.” 

The name refers to the tract’s former incarnation as the farm of J.B. Rapp. (See photo below.) He began as a lemon grower but expanded into more exotic fruits–dates, avocados and pineapples, among others. Although it is likely that these fruits had their origins on local ranchos, Rapp was among the first to grow them commercially. At a time when oranges and lemons were rare delicacies for most Americans, pineapples and avocados must have caused a sensation.

Hollywood’s frost-free climate made the cultivation of these crops possible, but it took vision to grow things for which there was little apparent demand. Rapp succeeded on several levels: he grew and created a market for exotic fruits, while in the process enhancing Hollywood’s reputation–and property values–as an American Garden of Eden. Among those drawn by the promise of year-round fresh produce was the Theosophical Society, which established itself  just north of the Pineapple Tract in 1911. In a letter to Annie Besant, A.P. Warrington, head of the American Branch, rhapsodized about the Canyon’s farming potential:

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….

Unbeknownst to Warrington, Beachwood also boasted thin soil and an abundance of produce-devouring wildlife. This may explain the fact that the Krotona Colony’s map shows several ornamental gardens and a decided lack of farm plots. As a resident whose efforts to grow vegetables have been thwarted by squirrels and tree rats, I sympathize.

Next time: bananas!

Pineapples on J. B. Rapp's Farm/Courtesy Tommy Dangcil, Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards

 

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/the-agrarian-origins-of-beachwood-canyon/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/beachwoods-earthly-paradise-the-lost-gardens-of-the-krotona-colony/

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

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

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

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

Peter the Hermit, Sage of the Hollywood Dell

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Peter the Hermit in Life Magazine/Courtesy Peter Green

Peter Green has written a fascinating account of his 1963 encounter with his great-uncle Peter Howard, aka Peter the Hermit, that answers many questions about this famous local character. (http://peterhgreen.com/blog)  Then 85 years old, Peter the Hermit was living in a bungalow near the 101 freeway, in the Hollywood Dell. When not appearing in biblical movies or posing for pictures, he worked as a spiritualist, dispensing advice to a famous clientele. He explained: 

The actors and actresses all come to me for advice: Jane Russell, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe. They come to me to learn of the higher spiritual world and to be healed.

His sideline was in keeping with the local tradition of alternative religions. Hollywood’s embrace of unconventional spiritual practices began with the Theosophical Society’s relocation to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. (For background, see my post from June 2, 2009, “Alternative Religions, from Theosophy to Scientology: A Hollywood Tradition.”) Actors such as John Barrymore and Charlie Chaplin soon took notice of the Krotona Colony, whose artistic, bookish members welcomed rather than shunned them as “movie people.” For denizens of the nascent film industry, the appeal of Theosophy probably stemmed both from its relative lack of dogma and its occult aspects.  Seances, a happy combination of mysticism and theatrics, quickly became a Silent Era fad, attracting practitioners who had no interest in Theosophy, or any other system of belief.

In counseling movie stars, reading auras and offering mystical platitudes, Peter continued a Hollywood tradition, but his canny entrepreneurialism was a break from the past. Unlike the Theosophists, who relied on wealthy benefactors, Peter the Hermit knew how to make a living from his spiritual talents. Though he resembled a Biblical prophet, his business model was distinctly modern, pointing to the present day. In contemporary Hollywood, agrarian utopias like the Krotona Colony are unknown, after all, but self-made spiritual advisors abound.

 

 

 

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