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.