Last Monday I visited the Self Realization Fellowship Mother Center (headquarters) with my friends Tammy Jean Park and Mike Morgan. I first explored the center’s grounds in 2012, as part of a California Fool’s Gold exploration of the Mount Washington neighborhood of Northeast Los Angeles. The historic building, long home to the Self-Realization Fellowship, was built as a resort hotel and is interesting to me as an example of adaptive reuse. I’m also interested in religion and spirituality, which is why I decided I’d like to launch a new series in which I explore various houses of worship that I’m calling Houses of the Hallows.
Mount Washington is an almost completely residential neighborhood with no major thoroughfares and while no means massive, the stately, white structure on its peak looms over its neighbors. A natural question to ask about Mount Washington, I think, is why a 135 meter-tall mound is so named. According to several sources, the hill is named after a surveyor named Colonel Henry Washington who reportedly passed through the general vicinity in 1855. As with many such explanations, I have my doubts. Having done a little research, the earliest references to the humble hump as “Mount Washington” that I’ve been able to find date from 1906.
1906 was, I suspect not coincidentally, the year that development kicked off on the hill — which it would’ve been a good idea to bestow with a grand name. Surely the folks behind the development were aware of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, which at 1,917 meters, is both an actual mountain, sometimes covered in snow, and in fact, the highest peak in all the Northeast. In 1900, a grand resort hotel was built on it and since 1868, it has been scaled by a funicular railway. I’m sure that Colonel Washington was a fine surveyor worthy of having whole chains of hills named after him but the fact that the chief selling points of Los Angeles’s Mount Washington were a resort hotel accessed via funicular rail raise doubts in me regarding the official story.
Developers Robert Marsh & Company hired the Mercereau Bridge Construction Company to build the funicular. Whilst serving a transit role, funiculars were themselves tourist attractions and before the funicular on Mount Washington, people were riding them up and down the slopes above Avalon, on Bunker Hill, and up Mount Lowe/Echo Mountain. The funicular, christened the Los Angeles & Mt. Washington Railway, actually predated the opening Mount Washington Hotel. Construction began in October 1908 and the cars (named “Florence” after Robert Marsh’s daughter and “Virginia” after the daughter of project backer Arthur St. Clair Perry) entered service the following May. With no hotel and no homes, riders to the top of the mostly denuded hill were treated to a nice view but little else. For decades, rail was used to lure homebuyers away from the city center to rail suburbs, or “toonervilles,” and sure enough, seven residential lots sold almost immediately.
The Los Angeles & Mt. Washington Railway had been in operation for almost six months by the time the two-story, Mission Revival style depot opened on 1 November 1909. The ground floor of the depot consisted of a ticket window and waiting room. Upstairs was the ticket seller’s residence. The architect was Frederick Rice Dorn. Dorn had been a partner for several years before going solo as a freelance architect, cranking out “brick blocks” at a rate of several per year. Though largely forgotten today, Dorn was something of a (forgive me) “starchitect” whose wedding, private dinners, luncheons, and even bridge games were dutifully covered in the society pages of the local newspapers.
One of Dorn’s most frequent clients was Robert Marsh & Company and Dorn designed for them several brick blocks, a seven-story hotel, and J.E. Marsh’s residence before designing the ticket office. Why, then, he wasn’t also hired to design the Mount Washington Hotel remains a mystery to me. Whatever the reason, the contract for construction of the Mount Washington Hotel was awarded to the Milwaukee Building Company, which had been established not much earlier in 1905 by Mendel Meyer, Gabriel Holler, and Julius C. Schneider. The architect of the hotel, Phillip W. Holler, had just come on board in 1908.
Holler was a transplant from South Bend, Indiana who’d attended USC in the 1880s. In the early 1900s, he lived at 4972 Pasadena Avenue, near the base of Mount Washington in the Sycamore Grove neighborhood. With Mendel Meyer, he would in 1911 found the celebrated architectural firm of Meyer & Holler, which would go on to design nine magnificent cinemas in Southern California — the California, Century, Chinese, Egyptian, Fox Anaheim, Fox Cabrillo, Fox Fullerton, Fox Long Beach, Mason, and Oriental theaters — and one in San Antonio (the Aztec). The handsome, three-story hotel is usually characterized as being, like the train depot, in the Mission Revival style… although to my unschooled eyes, it doesn’t look especially “Missiony.”
The exclusive hotel opened its doors in January 1910 boasting amenities including a rooftop garden, a library, and the lushly landscaped grounds. Tea was served daily in the west lobby (now a meditation room) from 16:00-17:00. The hotel hosted tennis tournaments and women’s groups like P.E.O. According to sources of the day, the hotel was a financial success, even though it faced grander — and more accessible — resort hotels nearby in Pasadena and South Pasadena.
Subsequent writers have often claimed that the Mount Washington Hotel was popular with film stars. Usually, the name Charlie Chaplin is floated. In Southern California “Chaplin slept here” is our “George Washington slept here.” Another reason cited as a reason for the hotel’s ultimate failure is the move of the film industry from Sycamore Grove to Edendale and later Hollywood, which is said to have thus starved the hotel of its once-steady stream of film star guests. As with the story of the surveyor, I again have my doubts.
In the early days of west coast filmmaking, Sycamore Grove Park was sometimes used as an outdoor filming location but the exodus indoors and to Edendale began before the hotel was even built. The Selig Polyscope Company led the way, setting up shop in Edendale in 1909 and most local studios soon followed suit although film production was never limited to just one area. In 1911, a writer for Motography described Edendale as “the motion picture center of the Pacific Coast.” Chaplin, for his part, didn’t move to Los Angeles until December 1913 and his acting career only began in 1914, when he appeared in the Keystone Cops film, Making a Living. Making a Living was shot at the Mack Sennet Studios in Edendale. In the meantime, Signal Film Company opened its studios in Sycamore Grove in 1915 and was quite successful until the collapse of its distributor, Mutual Films, in 1917.
Not to say that there were none but reading old newspapers, I saw no mention of any film stars having ever made their way up Mount Washington. Instead, I read about such as sisters Anabelle and Frederika Keep, who like others, leased rooms by the year. With only eighteen guest rooms, the presence of long-term guests would’ve meant that there was little room for out-of-towners. When out-of-towners are mentioned, their hometowns, in most cases, turn out to have been not-exactly far-flung locales like Long Beach or Santa Monica. Perhaps that’s why, in 1911, the hotel’s operators announced a planned 100-room expansion in the Los Angeles Times. For whatever reason, though, that plan never came to fruition, and in the end, the only addition was a two-story annex, constructed in the back. In 1914 was leased to hotelier E.P. Reed and hostess Mrs. L. Sullivan.
The last real blow to the hotel seems to not to have been the departure of movie stars but to the closure of the popular Los Angeles & Mt. Washington Railway. Inspectors from the Board of Public Utilities cited a worn cable and ordered the cessation of operation in early 1919 and on 9 January, it halted. Even after letting go of hotel operations, Robert Marsh had held onto the railway. He fought in state court to have the railway re-opened but it never did and in the summer of 1921, the hotel closed its doors after eleven years in business. A year later, the building re-opened as the Mt. Washington Military School. Despite its name, Colonel William Strover retreated from the neighborhood soon after. In 1923 it was repurposed as the Goodrich-Mount Washington Emphysema Hospital but that institution had breathed its last by early 1925.
In 1925, the building was sold to Paramahansa Yogananda, to be the headquarter of his Self-Realization Fellowship, a movement he’d founded in 1920. Yogananda born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in 1893 in Gorakhpur to a Bengali family. In 1917, he founded the Satsanga Society of India before moving to the US in 1920, the year he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship. Today there are about 500 Self-Realization Fellowship temples, ashrams, centers, meditation centers, and retreats in the world but the world headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship are still located in the old Mount Washington Hotel. Most of the changes seem to have been in purpose rather than architectural. The hotel’s dining room, for example, was converted into the chapel. The West Lobby became the Meditation Room. Yogananda made his residence on the third floor. The room is, reportedly, preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death in March 1952.
On the day of our visit, Tammy, Mike and I convened near the Gold Line‘s Southwest Museum Station. I wanted to walk along the path of the old railway, up Avenue 43 and Canyon Vista Drive, to the old hotel. The route is just over a kilometer in length and the climb just 132 meters but then, as now, we were in the grip of a global heatwave and so with uncharacteristic foresightedness, I suggested we purchase some water before our undertaking.
The old Los Angeles & Mt. Washington Railway station, as the ” Mount Washington Cable Car Station,” was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 269 in 1983. It’s long been a private residence, however, and so we didn’t disturb its tenants. The railway’s old tracks were removed all the way back in 1930, so even if any of us had owned a pump trolley, we’d have found walking the more sensible option and so walk we did. In the extreme heat, the hike proved moderately strenuous, and thankfully there was some shade. Although I’m terrible at estimating such things, I’d nevertheless estimate that our ascent took about fifteen minutes.
At the top of the hill, the old hotel calmly peaks from behind a grove of fragrant conifers and rustling Peruvian peppers. As the slope levels off, the gardens beckon like a tranquil oasis, and we rounded the property to the shaded entrance on San Rafael Avenue.
There’s a pervading sense of peace and quiet and, being a religious space, we did our best not to disturb the saffron-robed adherents. We discovered that the visitors’ center is closed on Mondays but that the gardens are open every day and so we set out to explore them.
The primary focus of the Self Realization Fellowship is apparently meditation and the gardens are presumably where much of that meditation takes place. They are designed in various styles. There is a Japanese garden, a cactus garden, a rose garden and various types of trees, a trellis, and a sundial. The old tennis courts remain although the nets are gone and they’re no longer used for tennis I assume because tennis is not especially conducive to meditation.
There are various, benches, seating areas throughout the garden including one constructed from concrete to resemble trees which looked to me like the sort of place the Council of Elrond might’ve gathered back in the Great Years of the Third Age. Another area is named the Temple of Leaves, and there’s a plaque there depicting Yogananda sitting there under a majestic Peruvian pepper.
Mike, who grew up in Northeast Los Angeles, told us that he remembered Halloween festivities taking place there and apparently there’s also an annual Easter egg hunt. We all pondered what looked like a sort of gazebo and which I subsequently learned is a wishing well. There’s also apparently a fish pond which visitors can check out but which we also missed.
The hotel was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 845 in 2006. Most of it, however, remains off-limits to the public. We were allowed to peak into the mediation room and there’s a small library. When I enquired about taking pictures, a woman at a desk politely informed me that photography is not allowed. At the top of the stairs, a sign read “private” and it’s important to remember that people live here.
Another sign informs that the lobby was redecorated in 1969, a fact which almost goes without saying as the marigold colors, textured wallpaper, and heavy curtains are more reminiscent of President Nixon’s La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente than they are anything dating from the 1910s or ’20s. The porch of the old hotel has what appears to be a terrazzo floor and there are attractive, tiled chairs and a rather old looking porcelain drinking fountain at which we refilled our bottles before heading back down the hill.