San Diego Theosophists Had Own Ideas on a New Age

Times Staff Writer

It is an estate as remarkable and in its own way spiritual as the woman who commissioned and designed it more than 100 years ago -- a godmother of the New Age movement in Southern California.

On a tranquil bluff top at Point Loma in San Diego stands a cluster of historic buildings, constructed with a blend of American know-how and confidence and with a love of antiquity and Indian spirituality.

The buildings, part of what was once a much grander complex, were designed by Katherine Tingley, leader of the Theosophical Society and known to followers as the “Purple Mother” (because she wore the color often).


These few enduring landmarks -- 10 buildings survive from the original 100 -- are all that remain in San Diego of a once-flourishing utopian society.

California social critic Carey McWilliams called Tingley the “first major prophetess of the region.” When she came to California from New York in 1897, she brought with her a knowledge of Eastern religions, philosophy and mystical experiences.

She became a vanguard of New York’s 22-year-old Theosophy movement, founded on the teachings of Madame Helena Blavatsky, a renowned Russian spiritualist. In 1896, five years after Blavatsky died, Tingley was elevated to the presidency of the movement, which caused it to split in two.

She also stirred a public appetite for drama, art and music, with cultural performances in her outdoor Greek amphitheater and a theater she bought in downtown San Diego.

All of the magnificent glass-domed structures, which were lighted at night and could be seen from miles offshore, are gone. During World War II, some of the remaining glass shattered from the vibrations of target practice by the Navy’s big guns.

A few years before she came west, Tingley met in New York with John C. Fremont, who had helped to usher in California statehood in 1850. She told the aged general of her dream to build “a white city in a golden land by the sundown sea.” Fremont told her that what she described reminded him of Point Loma on San Diego Bay.


After she took control of the Theosophy movement, she bought 132 acres atop Point Loma and began designing. She built the Temple of Peace, crowned with a spacious, amethyst-colored glass dome; the Raja Yoga School; an outdoor Greek amphitheater; and several round “lotus” houses with pitched roofs where as many as a dozen students lived together.

The complex was dominated by the imposing Academy Building with its four impressive stained-glass domes -- the largest of which was aquamarine -- with colors representing various healing and energy-enhancing powers.

The Academy Building’s two massive, carved doors symbolized the Theosophical principles of spiritual enlightenment and human potential. At the two entrances, bordered by what are now Catalina Boulevard and Dupont Street, stood Egyptian- and Roman-style gates.

Tingley also supported her flock, which at its peak numbered about 500, by selling fruit from the orchards and produce from the vegetable gardens that followers planted on the wind-swept, rocky plateau. The community eventually encompassed 400 acres.

Tingley drew into her fold Theosophists from the East Coast and England, including artists, a wealthy Southern cotton manufacturer, a New York diamond broker and her most devoted disciples: Albert and Elizabeth Spalding.

Spalding was a former baseball pitcher, president of the National League and a sporting-goods magnate whose name appears on sports equipment today. Tingley and Elizabeth Spalding bonded because of their religious devotion; Albert Spalding was more attracted to Tingley’s high batting average of split-second decision-making, business acumen and intuitive powers.


Spalding built his own pretentious showplace on the grounds of the compound: a white, two-story residence with an octagonal room at its center. Outside, he installed a fanciful, cliff-side Japanese garden and his pride and joy: a nine-hole golf course.

The Spalding house still stands, but most of the golf course and the park-like grounds that became known as Sunset Cliffs Park have slipped into the ocean.

No sooner were the buildings finished, and drawing tourists by the hundreds, than rival Theosophists and local Christian ministers began to attack Tingley from pulpits and hotel lecture halls and in the press.

One clergyman rented the Fisher Opera House in downtown San Diego and proclaimed that “reincarnation is a fad.” Theosophists believed in reincarnation and emphasized practical humanitarianism, education, prison reform and world peace. The minister told San Diegans: “We are not heathens, stretching out our hands to Point Loma for help.”

For her rebuttal, Tingley bought the theater. Dressed in her favorite purple, she said before a huge crowd that Jews and Christians had once believed in reincarnation. She challenged the pastor to a debate; he refused.

She renamed the theater Isis and used it for dramas that she produced. San Diegans, ignoring the pastor’s advice, flocked to the performances.


The Raja Yoga School (meaning “royal union” or “perfect balance”) was central to the mission at Point Loma. By 1901, it had 100 students. Nine years later, it had 300 students and 60 teachers.

Using methods similar to Montessori techniques, children learned through physical, emotional and intellectual immersion. They lived at the school; their parents could see them for just two hours each Sunday. Children ate communally and had to maintain silence at meals. Adults also ate communally, and everyone was a vegetarian -- a Theosophist principle.

In October 1901, casual visitors to the school praised Tingley after watching 3-year-olds spelling and reading such words as “concentration” and “determination.” But praise was hardly universal. The Los Angeles Times blasted her with such headlines as “Spooky” and “Outrages at Point Loma: Women and Children Starved and Treated Like Convicts.”

Readers were treated to a reporter’s lurid account, based on stories from a woman in a rival Theosophist group, of a cult gone awry, with forced labor and nighttime lockups. The children, The Times claimed, were kept on the verge of starvation. Adults of both sexes made strange “midnight pilgrimages ... in their night robes” and some practiced “gross immoralities.”

Tingley sued The Times and the paper’s president and general manager, Harrison Gray Otis, for libel, asking $50,000 in damages.

Otis and his five attorneys failed twice to get a change of venue from San Diego, claiming that a recent poll by The Times proved that San Diegans were prejudiced against the newspaper and its president.


Superior Court Judge E.S. Torrance disagreed, saying “the ill feeling against the defendant was not on account of the libelous article written against Mrs. Tingley, but simply because the defendant had systematically run down the town.”

On the first day of the trial, in December 1902, Otis spotted Tingley and reportedly said his case was as good as lost: Tingley, then 55, had fallen down some stairs; she entered the courtroom with the aid of an assistant and a crutch.

Instead of her customary purple, she wore a plain black dress. Tingley testified at length; Otis was summoned only to state the value of the newspaper, which he put at $1 million

After two weeks of legal sparring, a defense attorney told the jury in closing: “If, gentlemen, you believe in the Christian religion, your duty is clear. If you believe in the family circle ... the institution of marriage, marriage of one man to one woman, your duty is clear.... I ask for your justice here, an American justice.... Society is involved in this matter and Christian civilization is at stake.”

But Judge Torrance ruled for Tingley, telling the jury merely to set the amount of damages. “The publication, in all respects in which it is construed by the complaint, is libelous,” he said.

The jury awarded Tingley $7,500. Although the amount was considerably less than the $50,000 she had sought, Otis took the case to the California Supreme Court, losing there before finally admitting defeat.


Tingley kept a watchful eye on the press thereafter. In 1916, the New York World printed a sensational story titled “Purple Mother of Point Loma.” She demanded, and got, a retraction in the same space as the story.

That year, the Oakland Tribune magazine printed a critical article about her. She got a front-page, two-column retraction, a glowing puff piece in the magazine and $5,000 in damages.

The libel settlements, donations, tuition, magazine and book publications, pageants and plays helped pay for Tingley’s teachings.

But “Lomaland,” as the neighbors called it, needed Tingley to thrive. Her death in 1929, coupled with the stock market crash, began its decline. By 1942, the last believer had left and the land was sold to a developer.

The site traded hands twice before a 90-acre portion was sold in 1973 to Point Loma Nazarene University, which operates today in the 10 remaining buildings and several new ones.

The last members of the society moved to Covina, then to Altadena, where they maintain a center today.