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Utopia in Hollywood

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Remember Sir Thomas More in HBO's "The Tudors"? The good guy who had his head chopped off by Henry VIII for challenging the king's will? This scholar wrote a philosophical tale about an island called Utopia, far from England, where a fair and equitable society lived without poverty, the tyranny of a standing army and rebarbative lawyers.

At times of optimistic faith in social progress, Americans have turned to the Utopian writings of More and others. Henry Thoreau, the Quakers and the Shakers were enlightened thinkers who built houses and towns as models of a perfected world.

Today, as we step from the calamity of one decade into the promise of a new one, what better time to revisit Krotona, a hopeful Hollywood community founded nearly a century ago?

In 1875, as industrial America rose and avarice trounced charity, mystic Helena Blavatsky and fellow occultists in New York established the Theosophical Society. Its rituals were a healing blend of clairvoyance, science and Freemasonry, dedicated to charitable works and brotherly love. Twenty-five years later, at Theosophy's international headquarters in Adyar, a town in southern India, activist Annie Besant formed a sect that promoted meditation as a unifying force for human good. Albert P. Warrington, a lawyer in Virginia, dedicated his life to the Adyar branch and became its American leader in 1912.

California, with its cheap land for private paradises, was home to more utopian colonies than any other state. Warrington picked up 11 acres west of Beachwood Canyon and north of Franklin Avenue, below where the Hollywood sign stands today, to create an Adyar settlement. He called it Krotona after the Greek school founded by Pythagoras, who applied musical theory to harmonize the body, mind and spirit.

Proving that faith can move mountains, or at least truck loads of dirt, the Krotona colony was up by 1919. It was a veritable Vegas CityCenter-style oasis for the faithful, conceived in an unrealized plan by Pasadena architects Arthur S. and Alfred Heineman, with buildings by San Diego's Mead & Requa, Harold Dunn, Elmer C. Andrus and amateur designer and theosophist Marie R. Hotchener. It included the Krotona Court for educational programs; the Moorish-style Grand Temple of the Rosy Cross for ritual performance; the curious Science Building for experiments to verify theosophical mysteries; and bungalows and villas of the true believers, who included New Yorker Grace Shaw Duff.

Duff came to her characteristically Victorian eccentricity with star credentials as the daughter of author and entertainer Henry Wheeler Shaw, known as Josh Billings. After Mark Twain, he was America's most renowned humorist, credited for popularizing "a squeaky wheel gets the grease" and "the one thing money can't buy is the wag of dog's tail," a homily in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp." Duff wrote too, along serious, theosophical lines, and she republished 18th century tracts on early Christian mystics.

Duff's house was the Ternary, designed by Arthur Heineman on land acquired in 1914 adjacent to Warrington's original purchase. Its three wings around a garden court were in a modern Moorish style that blended California Spanish traditions with eastern motifs, just as Theosophy synthesized Asian and western beliefs. Its name, meaning three, reflected Theosophy's way to an enlightened world: Build a community without discrimination; study religion, philosophy and science; explore the inexplicable.

Fundamental to utopian colonies was living with nature. The Ternary was on a landscaped plateau just below Krotona's Italian gardens. From a stadium in this terraced Saranath, an audience watched as the Buddha came to life in theatrical performance that used Duff's house as a mystical set.

The hills were alive with prayer and faith until L.A. sprawl crowded Warrington's idyllic retreat. In 1924, he moved his community to Ojai, where the Krotona School of Theosophy continues today. In Hollywood, original Krotona buildings remain, altered for mundane, contemporary life. The Ternary is an apartment house, and the Italian gardens are subdivided.

Oscar Wilde, no stranger to misery, wrote: "A map of the modern world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing." Living now in our Distopia, with global wars, churches in schism, fractious politics and investment bankers doing God's work, it's hard to imagine a 21st century Utopia. But -- all it will take is faith in a better way.

For Watters' past columns on Southern California social history as told through lost homes and gardens, go to latimes.com/lostla. Comments: href="mailto:home@latimes.com">home@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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