Katherine Tingley’s utopian vision in Pt. Loma

The little world that almost was

Lomaland, c. 1905
  • Lomaland, c. 1905

The cypress trees remain. So do the eucalyptus, pine, and the groves of pepper trees. They are living memorials to the vision and industry of a group of people who turned a dusty, chaparral-covered section of Point Loma into a utopian wonderland. Of the fantastic architecture, the eccentric, ornate residences and glass-domed structures which crowned the ridge of the peninsula, only a spare few examples can be seen today. But the memory is still vivid of those years during which San Diego played host to a daring social experiment.

This is a brief historical account of that experiment, of Lomaland, a unique community which blossomed in San Diego at the turn of the century. It is a story that should be viewed as but one leaf from the limb of an enormous tree whose roots, a complex body of spiritual and philosophical doctrines known as Theosophy, will remain unexplored. With numerous branches in virtually every country of the Western world, the Theosophical movement offers up a map of the cosmos so filled with backroads and tributaries that efforts at simple definition are necessarily doomed. Though the Theosophical experience in San Diego is no less complicated, reflecting as it does the intricate fabric of Theosophical thought, it is at least more manageable.

Lomaland grew into a center of learning, culture and social reform the likes of which San Diego had never seen – nor has experienced since. From 1897 to 1942 it changed the landscape of Point Loma, and to some extent, the “mindscape” of San Diego as well.

Before we arrive at Point Loma, however, a little background information is in order. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City by a well-traveled Russian woman, Helena P. Blavatsky, in the year 1875. Her various writings, the foundation on which Theosophy is built, and her book, Isis Unveiled, greatly impressed two men: William Quan Judge and Henry S. Olcott. As co-founders of the original Society, Olcott served as president and Judge as vice-president. In 1878 Blavatsky and Olcott headed for the Near East and established the international headquarters of their controversial Society at Adyar, India. Judge was left in New York to nurture the American section of the Society, a task he performed with great zeal. After the death of Blavatsky in 1891, Judge and Olcott had many bitter disagreements, and in 1895 the Society split in two. Olcott took control of the European section when the American section, under Judge, formally seceded, calling itself the Theosophical Society in America.

By this time Judge had met Katherine Tingley, a remarkable woman from Massachusetts who was then active in relief work among New York’s poor. Impressed with her humanitarian spirit and organizational prowess, Judge sought her counsel and aid in his work with the Theosophical Society.

Within a year of the Theosophical Society’s schism, Judge died, and Tingley — still a newcomer — managed to take control of his American Society. This event alone is worth elaboration, for the method Tingley employed in convincing the principal officers of the Society to follow her are somewhat controversial, and questionable. Tingley was more than a dedicated social reformer; she was a spiritualist – a medium, some say with scorn — and a woman possessed with great political savvy.

The new queen began her reign with the kind of flourish that was to endear her to some Theosophists and alienate others. From her New York headquarters she announced a World Crusade for Theosophy, which began in June of 1896. She subsequently traveled through Europe and the Near East, visiting Australia and New Zealand as well. The crusade culminated with the laying of a cornerstone for the School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity. This event took place at Point Loma in February, 1897. Tingley had purchased, through an agent, 132 acres there, with money donated by a sympathetic Scottish patroness. The land purchase created quite a stir in the little town of San Diego (with a population under 20,000), and the cornerstone ceremony – a splendorous affair with banners, proclamations, and the flags of all nations fluttering in the Southern California breeze – attracted an enormous crowd of curious San Diegans. The event was climaxed by Tingley, dressed in flowing purple robes, solemnly depositing into the cornerstone a time capsule containing documents of the Society.

The American Theosophical Society had arrived in San Diego and staked its claim just north of the government reservation (since expanded) on Point Loma. It was to be two years, however, before its new leader could solidify her authority, a feat she accomplished through shrewd political maneuverings and which resulted in her being proclaimed “Leader and Official Head for Life” of the newly named Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society. With her community successfully underway and her autocratic power assured, Katherine Tingley called an International Theosophical convention to Point Loma in 1899. Among those in attendance was Iverson Harris, now eighty-eight years old and one of the oldest surviving members of the Lomaland community. His memory forms a veritable compendium of names, dates, and places. Harris, now living in Pacific Beach, exudes a restrained, Victorian charm as he recalls his first meeting with Katherine Tingley and his move to Point Loma.

“My father, with others, came from Macon, Georgia to attend the convention. I was only a kid eight years old at the time. My father had asked the members of the family who wanted to go with him. Well, I had seen a picture of beautiful orange trees in my geography book and wanted to go to the country where there were so many beautiful oranges. That’s how I happened to go.

“The convention lasted for about a week, and then the time came for the delegates to go back to their respective homes. I was dressed in my ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ suit, and playing with K.T.’s dog (Theosophists are fond of using their leaders initials) while the Macon delegates were saying their goodbyes. Suddenly, I looked up and said ‘I know what you want, Mrs. Tingley. You want me to stay here!’ ‘Do you want to stay?’ she asked. I said, ‘If you want me to stay, I’ll stay.’ So, she gave me an American flag, and I led the closing procession all the way to the cliffs.

“When the delegation got back to Macon, my mother wondered where her little boy was. Well, he was still in California, under the care of Doctors Winkler and Van Pelt. I went to the local school in Roseville for the year, and then, in 1900, K.T. started the Raja Yoga School in Point Loma. A little later she moved the international headquarters of the Society from New York to Point Loma.”

The barren hillsides were soon transformed as Tingley began the first of many construction projects. She commenced by performing a kind of radical surgery on the three-story sanitarium erected the previous year by Theosophist Dr. Lorin Wodd. Tingley had the building’s inner patio capped with an enormous aquamarine glass dome, forming a rotunda nearly a hundred feet in diameter and eighty-five feet in height. From the corners of the building rose three additional brilliantly colored domes.

But the homestead, as Tingley first called it (later known as the Academy), was not the most impressive building on the site. Directly west of it another structure was built. Originally, this was known as the Aryan Memorial Temple – dedicated to the memory of Helena P. Blavatsky and William Q. Judge. Later, it was rededicated as the Temple of Peace. Glistening white, the circular building reached skyward in two tiers, and was magnificently topped by a voluminous dome of amethyst-tinted glass. Tingley, the amateur architect, had a bent for what can only be described as freakish Oriental bizarre; she later had the domes of both buildings crowned with glass spheres nearly twenty feet in diameter, and on top of those she added ornamental flaming hearts. From across the bay, and to the citizens of San Diego, Point Loma began to look more and more like a colony from another planet. At night, from out at sea, the illuminated spires were beacons far more eye-catching than the government’s lighthouse.

Other buildings went up in rapid succession, and within a year the place was a major tourist attraction. It became almost customary for guests at the Hotel Del Coronado to take the tour, complete with Theosophical guides, of the Lomaland complex. Later, a bus tour was added.

“I remember all that very well,” says Harris, “I remember the building of what was then called Students Group Home Number One – which was built with the collaboration of A.G. Spalding (the sporting goods magnate and a major Tingley supporter) and his wife. I also remember, very distinctly, the ‘Lotus Homes’ being built – small, octagonal buildings with a little dome (skylight) at the top. Lotus homes number one through ten went up during my early school years there.”

Unfortunately, none of the major buildings survive today. A parking lot on the grounds of Point Loma College occupies the site of Homestead Temple. Of these, only a short flight of concrete steps remains. An impressive Roman gate at the intersection of Catalina Boulevard and Lomaland Avenue can only be viewed in yellowed photographs, and an Egyptian gate that once graced the corner at Dupont Street shares its fate. But the Greek theater Tingley built, the first one in the U.S., still exists – though in a rather dilapidated state. A few other structures remain. One of these, the Spalding Home, is known today as Mieras Hall, the administration complex of Point Loma College. Its exterior spiral staircase (to the roof) makes it very hard to miss. Katherine Tingley’s home is now Cabrillo Hall, the college’s music department. All of the Lotus Homes but one, now used for storage, are gone. Of course, the lush foliage surrounding the campus is still there; all of the trees were planted by Theosophists. Tingley’s efforts were not confined to building strange-looking homes and planting hundreds of trees however. The education of children was one of her major interests. The Raja Yoga (Royal Union) system of education she developed was meant to direct student toward a balance of all the faculties: mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional.

She formally opened the Raja Yoga School in 1901, with classes held in the Homestead-Academy building. In its heyday the school boasted more than 300 pupils, many of them from disadvantaged areas of the world – particularly Cuba. Most of the students, besides learning the standard subjects, were taught typing and shorthand as well – even in elementary school. In high school they studied history, English, physics, and chemistry – certainly not a remarkable curriculum today, but at the turn of the century it was very unusual.

Perhaps even more unusual for the time were the extracurricular activities. In addition to common athletic pastimes such as baseball and basketball (football was considered “too brutal”), the students were encouraged to study music and art. One of those students was Emmett Small, who, with Iverson Harris, was among Raja Yoga’s first students. Today, seventy-four-year-old Small lives a short walk from the Lomaland community where he grew up. “K.T believed it was very important that everybody have that experience, whether they had any particular skill or not. You’d find people learning the clarinet who didn’t have any great musical talent – but they learned it.

“I started, first, to learn the violin; I wasn’t any good at it and what’s more, I didn’t like it. I dropped it and took up the clarinet, and after I learned that, I learned to play the cello. I liked the cello a hundred times more than the clarinet. I still have my cello here, in fact.”

Harris concurs: “We had dramatic training, too, and frequently presented the plays of Shakespeare in the Greek theater – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Twelfth Night. We had choral, orchestral and play rehearsals in the afternoon, and – quite frequently – in the evenings we’d listen to lectures by older people. We even put on our own original entertainment, such as the Aroma of Athens, a drama composed at Point Loma.”

Theosophical doctrines, an ancient philosophical mélange which, it is claimed, gave rise to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a variety of other beliefs, were not taught at the Raja Yoga School, for Tingley knew she could attract the interest of more well-to-do parents by advertising that the institution was nonsectarian. (The tuitions they paid were a major source of income to Lomaland.) Classes were short; students rarely spent more than three hours in session. The children, even the very young ones, did not live with their parents at Lomaland, but lived with their teachers in the ten Lotus Homes – an arrangement that created much controversy in San Diego. Though discipline was strict (students as well as adults were expected to perform their duties in silence), so corporal punishment was meted out. Lomaland was no place for the shiftless or lazy, as schedules were tight, packed with the business of operating an idealistic community.

“We got up,” says Harris, “at half past five and went out and did our exercises – even military drill. We went through the Manual of Arms – it’s somewhat incongruous, I know, but it was done for the discipline. Mr. Pierce, who moderated the boys, was a veteran of the Civil War, and an ardent supporter of the Grand Army of the Republic. He thought every boy ought to have that discipline and training. The girls, of course, had their own exercises. Then we’d go to breakfast at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. After that, we’d do all our own housework; we’d make our own beds and clean our own rooms. At about 9:00 a.m., we’d go to classes. When class was out we’d go to lunch, and then work in the garden. I tell you one thing, we were kept busy all the time. We’d work in the manual training department, or the print shop or at some other department. K.T. believed the best way to keep young people happy and out of mischief was to keep them busy.”

Besides the heavy workload, Raja Yoga students were constantly presented with slogans, mottos, and songs, all designed to convey the Tingley sense of ethics, duty, and service. In this way they were heartily encouraged to “kill out” their own “selfish desires” and “do what is needed.” In other words: obey, study, serve. “Do well the smallest duty,” teachers exhorted, “and when the day is done there will be no regrets, no time wasted – then joy will come.” “Life is joy” was the Tingley motto, and the children’s magazine (which they helped produce) bore this slogan on its cover: “Children of Light, as ye go forth into the world, seek to render noble service to all that lives.”

“We were brought up on that idea,” Harris recalls. “I tell you, some of us who tries to live the ‘spirit of Lomaland’ actually felt a little guilty when we asked for anything unnecessary for ourselves. It seemed contrary to the spirit in which we were brought up. That served us very well, although I don’t think it was very well appreciated…”

Indeed it was not. The Lomaland experience was a source of great resentment to some students, and a number dropped out of the Raja Yoga School and the community, often against their elders’ wishes. At one point, six young women, taking advantage of Katherine Tingley’s absence, staged a small revolt and left en masse. The rebellion was basically a response to the lifestyle, which many students – especially those in their late teens – thought was anachronistic. The uniforms and long dresses they wore might have been fine in 1900, but by 1920 – the Flapper era – they weren’t exactly at the height of fashion. Young women were not allowed to “bob” their hair and “modern” pastimes such as ballroom dancing were considered “too sensual.”

Zealous and somewhat domineering, Tingley had hoped to raise a generation of social reformers, a group of dedicated young people who would “carry the torch” of Universal Brotherhood and form the nucleus of a new civilization. That was the driving purpose behind the Raja Yoga educational system. And though Tingley attracted some of the brightest educators available (the Welsh poet Kenneth Morris among them) and went as far as to establish a Theosophical University, she never realized her dream. It didn’t work out, in large part, because Raja Yoga students, contrary to popular belief, were so exposed to “the outside world.” Most utopian communities seek to perpetuate themselves by isolating their youth and indoctrinating them. (The Hutterites, for instance, have had much success in this way.) But the reverse was true at Lomaland, where the brighter students often accompanied Tingely on her world travels.

Raja Yoga education did not bring about a new millennium – most of its graduates conformed to the prevailing social values once they left the community – but it did produce some exceptionally bright scholars (Judith Tyberg of the East-West Cultural Center in Los Angeles is one) and many more were impressed by the sense of ethics taught there.

“I think that to this day what distresses me more than anything else is how everybody is out for what he can get,” Harris muses. “I mean, competition… seems to be the motive power of the great majority of mankind. It would solve nearly all of our problems if people, as a whole, could practice what I call the spirit of Lomaland. Among the adults that came to Lomaland, the question was not ‘what can I get?’ but ‘what can I give?’ The spirit of Lomaland – it’s the one possible solution. And it’s impossible.”

If Tingley ultimately failed in her attempt to produce a generation of reformers, she was relentless in her own efforts to change the world. From campaigns against capital punishment to persistent efforts at prison reform, she hounded public officials and spread her message by any means available. But her crusade for peace was surely her most ambitious project; she was one of the most vocal anti-war activists of the early Twentieth Century.

“She spoke vigorously against war at all times,” says Harris. “She rededicated our Memorial Temple to peace to emphasize what we were working for. We had a permanent committee at Point Loma that worked to propagate the idea of peace and to protest against war. Our magazines were filled, month after month, with anti-war protests and pro-peace essays. I don’t know what else she could have done.”

She did plenty. In 1913, Tingley organized an International Peace Congress, which was held on a Swedish island where she owned property. The congress attracted hundreds of people – not just Theosophists, but statesmen and members of royal families from throughout Europe. Spurred on by this success, she held frequent gatherings at her Isis Theater in San Diego (once the Fisher Opera House on Fourth Avenue, downtown).

In 1914, the lomalanders began to prepare for a Parliament of Peace and Universal Brotherhood. It was to be held at Point Loma the following year, but war broke out in Europe and shattered the plan. With characteristic aplomb and zeal, Tingley responded by contacting President Wilson, all forty-eight state governors, and 500 mayors, asking all to set aside September 28, 1914 as the Sacred Peace Day for the Nations. Wilson set aside his own day, but San Diego’s mayor had already endorsed the Theosophists’ plan, part of which called for an enormous parade to pass up Broadway. San Diegans turned out by the hundreds.

As events brought America closer to a major European was, however, a panic-stricken hysteria swept the nation. Public opinion turned against Tingley and other peace activists. The U.S. prepared for battle, but Tingley was undaunted. In the face of militant nationalism, Tingley was adamant: “War is a confession of man’s weakness, not a proof of his strength.” Such outspokenness, at a time when German-Americans were routinely harassed, drew many a fearful and suspicious eye to the colored domes on Point Loma. Efforts to gain draft exemptions for Raja Yoga students (in 1918) created even more hostility. The throngs that once filled the Isis Theater to hear her speak began to dwindle, but Tingley pressed her crusade for peace – and other reform movements – all the more.

The programs from Point Loma to Cuba to Europe were3 executed in a style that was charismatic, dramatic – and expensive. By 1925 Lomaland was beset by numerous financial difficulties and about $500,000 in debt. Many of Tingley’s wealthiest supporters had become disillusioned and left the community. Some had died, and years of litigation with their heirs over those portions of the estates left to Tingley proved disastrous. Tingley was forced to borrow, using her beloved Isis Theater as collateral. Later, despite objections from her closest aides, she mortgaged most of the Lomaland propery and liquidated her own interests in the U.S. and Cuba (where she lost $300,000). None of these measures, however, had a substantial effect, and by 1928 the debt had increased: close to $1,000,000 was owed various creditors.

“Because of the tightened circumstances,” says Harris, “quite a number of the adult members were beginning to leave. After the stock market crash, quite a few of our members thought they would relieve the community by leaving. We didn’t have such a good enrollment at the school either, but as a matter of fact, very few of the members knew anything about the financial difficulties. They had no concern with them. K.T. and her business advisors took care of it all.”

But Tingley, as one contemporary put it, was “past her prime,” advanced in age and suffering the onslaught of ill health. Perhaps for this reason she failed to recognize – maybe refused to accept – the desperate financial situation. She continued to spend huge sums of money, much more than she was taking in. Appearances were somehow maintained at Lomaland, and her efforts abroad – to open a school in Sweden and another in Germany – were continued. Frugality and prudence, it seems, were not among the reformer’s virtues. The work, for which she had reshaped the Theosophical Society, simply had to go on.

It did, until July 11, 1929. Katherine Tingley had suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident in Europe six weeks before. Rather than be taken to a hospital, she dismissed her physician and attempted to manage the Society’s affairs to the very end. Her ashes were later scattered at Point Loma.

Longtime Theosophist and resident of Lomaland, Gottfried de Purucker, succeeded Tingley. He instituted many changes at Point Loma, but was no builder of utopian communities.

“Comparisons are odious,” Emmett Small warns. “One shouldn’t compare the two with the idea that one was necessarily any worse or better or more effective than the other. The work that K.T. was necessary. She was a person who could be easily criticized by those who didn’t understand her. What she did was to preserve Theosophy through all those decades, in, I think, its purest form. G.D.P. was a scholar and a mystic, one far more retiring from the world, you might say. I don’t think he enjoyed, in the sense K.T. did enjoy, having to meet the vibration of the tough and aggressive public. He did his work in that area, nevertheless. But he also brought new light on the Theosophical teachings in line with what H.P. Blavatsky had originally intended. His methods were more indirect than K.T.’s perhaps, but their intentions were the same.”

Under de Purucker, the Rule of Silence was abolished, uniforms were no longer required, young women were allowed to bob their hair, and the words “Universal Brotherhood” no longer preceded “Theosophical Society.” The opulent dramatic productions, most of the richly illustrated publications, and the reform movements all came to an end. The Raja Yoga Academy was called, simply, Lomaland School, and Theosophical doctrines were taught. More important, however, was the fact that de Purucker managed to pull the institution out of debt.

“Many people think that everything went down after K.T. died,” Harris says, “but that’s a misconception. It was G.D.P. who kept the ship afloat by his austerity and by the new interest he aroused in Theosophy among occult-minded people of the world. Doctor de Purucker started a new era.”

But during the depression, conditions on Point Loma were, in one Theosophist’s words, “deplorable.” The acres of orchards and gardens died for lack of water – a commodity Lomaland could no longer afford in great quantities. Many of the buildings were in disrepair, including the temple and the academy; rain leaked through the glass domes as the old panes were rattled out of their frames by Naval gunnery practice on the point. As a vibrant center of learning, culture and reform, as a utopian community, Lomaland had expired.

De Purucker, at the start of World War II, managed to acquire a new home for the remaining Lomalanders; in 1942 they moved to a facility in Covina, California.

As the Theosophists prepared to leave, it occurred to them to retrieve the time capsule Tingley had deposited forty-five years before in the cornerstone of the School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity. At a quiet ceremony a small group of people gathered as the metal box was pried open. What they found inside proved to be a fitting end to the Point Loma experiment: ashes.

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