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The Architecture of Belief

The Story of LA's Occult Landmarks

 

Here is a story about Los Angeles: In 1935, a man who attempted to murder his wife gifted over 4,000 acres of land – previously owned by a man who had survived two attempts on his own life by separate, jilted lovers – to a corrupt mayor later driven from office by the efforts of a charitable Christian businessman with a side business in sexual novelties, who discovered that mayor’s secrets behind a false wall in a fake library. That businessman founded a thriving chain of restaurants built on the premise of giving away free food, one of which became the meeting place for a science fiction writer’s club, whose members included a man who conned a rocket scientist out of his life savings after first taking notes on how the scientist masturbated, and another man who convinced the city of Los Angeles to erect a three-story-tall fake Babylonian arch in the middle of Hollywood and then turn it into a shopping mall. This really happened, and I mention it here to remind you of the old saw about truth’s superlative relationship to fiction.

“Los Angeles is a city of dreams,” runs one of many thoughtless truisms often repeated about this solid city, where four million people live un-imaginary lives. And yet, if the city’s residents seem uniquely gullible, perhaps it is because so many strange things happen here that prime the imagination for belief. In no other city do the illusions of celebrity culture, political intrigue, and fringe religions entwine so seductively. If you’ve been here long enough – I’m third generation – you almost certainly have some passing connection to the city’s secret side.

It is the irony of the true believer that he is forever looking for signs. Faith wants proof. To conspiracy theorists, the world is complex but fundamentally intelligible, banded by secrets that yield to the slightest pressure. The nation is run by an ageless secret cabal, and they leave their calling cards everywhere, from the White House to the dollar bill. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a world so mysterious and yet so coquettishly revealing?

Not only do many strange things happen in L.A., but they happen quite plainly. Los Angeles is often criticized for not protecting its landmarks, but in its rush to plaster over the structures of the past, the city creates a palimpsest, layers of accreted fantasy that peel back to reveal secret passages, hidden tunnels, and coded inscriptions, which provide conspiracy theorists and paranormal enthusiasts ample evidence for their theories. The six buildings that follow, used today mostly for mundane purposes, nonetheless contain secret passages, hidden codes, and other partially visible clues to a vast conspiracy.

The Ishtar Gate, Hollywood and Highland
The Hollywood & Highland Center, as it’s lately called, is a complex of tourist shops, chain restaurants, and entertainment venues that has grown to subsume the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (home to generations of celebrity footprints) and the Kodak Theatre, host to the Academy Awards. Our highest civic honor is bestowed in a building less than one red carpet’s distance from a Cabo Wabo.

At the intersection of Hollywood and Highland there stands a preening Babylonian arch sometimes called the Ishtar Gate, a three-story-tall replica of the set of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent film Intolerance, also a big-budget failure, though lacking a Cabo Wabo. The giant gleaming white gate is matched by a pair of giant white pillars topped by some un-Babylonian elephants, the whole mess of it surmounting a courtyard filled with a tour groups, costumed characters, and people passing out handbills advertising threading and Scientology. It’s akin to erecting a 45-foot-tall statue of Ra in the middle of Times Square. It’s all so delightfully off-kilter: a gleefully bad idea, poorly conceived and grandiosely executed, a testament to the bracing stupidity of the human imagination.

In a posthumous essay published in the Paris Review, Ray Bradbury claims credit for this monstrous idea: “I told them that somewhere in the city, they had to build the set from the 1916 film Intolerance by D. W. Griffith. The set, with its massive, wonderful pillars and beautiful white elephants on top, now stands at the corner of Hollywood and Highland avenues. People from all over the world come to visit, all because I told them to build it. I hope at some time in the future, they will call it the Bradbury Pavilion.”

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Ishtar Gate, LA. Photo: Lisa Brettschneider/CC.

What was Ray Bradbury thinking? Several prominent conspiracy theorists have an idea. There is a tortuous connection between Hollywood and ancient Babylon, they believe, that explains both the Ishtar Gate and the other Babylonian-themed buildings in and around Los Angeles, including most notably the Citadel Outlet Mall. This is elucidated in some detail on a website called Secrets in Plain Sight, which bills itself as uncovering “Patterns in Art, Architecture, Urban Design & the Cosmos.”

The name “Hollywood,” it begins, reveals the city’s connection to Druidic tree worshippers. The site quotes famed crackpot David Icke’s book, Children of the Matrix, saying, “…thus we have Holle, or Holly-wood (Hel-wood, the ‘place of magic’) and home of the Illuminati’s mass propaganda and conditioning machine in California. The holly wood was a favorite source of magic wands.”

Discussing the awards show that takes place at Hollywood and Highland, the site continues, “The reader may have noticed how often we see the world leaders walking upon a red carpet. This is an old symbol dating back through the concocted story of the Old Testament twins Pharez and Zarah to the time of the Druids. The red carpet is a motif representing the blood-path or bloodline coming down from the past and running in the future.”

And more: “Look at how the line from the Ishtar gate in Hollywood perfectly traces the reconstructed wall of Babylon,” it begins, before getting to the goddess Inanna, alien-built ziggurats, and the Masons, at last ending with, “Is Hollywood the New Babylon? It’s all right there in plain sight.”

Clifton’s Cafeteria
Ray Bradbury may have fostered his taste for the exuberantly artificial during years spent hanging around Clifton’s Cafeteria, a multilevel fantasia built in 1935 and recently and gloriously renovated. This cafeteria, on the corner of 6th and Broadway, was the second Clifton’s to be built, and the only one of the chain still in operation.

In 1931, the first Clifton’s (the name is an elision of the first and last names of its founder, Clifford Clinton) opened on Olive Street, and four years later, the second location, formerly called Clifton’s Brookdale. Six more cafeterias followed, but today only Clifton’s Brookdale survives. Each location had a different decorating scheme: the first Clifton’s, on Olive, was modeled after “the Pacific Seas,” and Clifton’s Brookdale has a woodlands lodge theme complete with towering fake redwood trees, rocky grottos, a waterfall, taxidermy wildlife, and forest murals.

Clifford Clinton, a devout Christian, called Clifton’s “The Cafeteria of the Golden Rule,” and operated it on a pay-what-you-can system, distributing thousands of free meals during the Depression. In 1946, Clinton left the management of the restaurant chain to devote himself full-time to his non-profit Meals for Millions, which has distributed food to millions of people around the world since the aftermath of World War II. He also teamed up with Caltech biochemist Dr. Henry Borsook to develop the 1945 precursor to Soylent, which he dubbed “Multi-Purpose Food,” a high-density nutritious food product that met the dietary restrictions of all the world’s major religions.

Clinton was also the chair of the Citizens’ Independent Vice Investigating Committee, whose uncovering of 600 brothels, 1,800 bookies, and 300 gambling houses in the corrupt city lead to the 1938 recall of Mayor Frank Shaw, an act of civic altruism for which Clinton had his house bombed. Apparently, Clinton lost the support of the mayor after uncovering a clandestine vice den operating in a secret room behind a library at Sunset and Laurel.

 

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In keeping with his charitable missions, Clinton also distributed a weekly newsletter called Food for Thot, a collection of inspirational poetry, quotes, and short essays edited by my grandmother’s best friend, Esther York Burkholder (née Esther York Baldwin, though I failed to uncover any connection to the Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, one of the city’s founding fathers, who was married four times, four times sued by former lovers for breach of promise of marriage, and twice shot, by two different women whom he had jilted). Food for Thot ran for 67 years, and in the summer of 1979 included a little musing on my birth and all the hopeful promise of my given name. Burkholder was also a member of the Chapparal Poets, a Southern California-based poetic society that has been championing the cause of poetry for more than 50 years.

The cafeteria was also the meeting place of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, the oldest continuously operating science fiction club in the world, whose members included Ray Bradbury, Ray Harryhausen, L. Ron Hubband, and Jack Parson, founder of JPL, acclaimed rocket engineer, sex-mad occultist, acolyte of Aleister Crowley, and a man who was somehow convinced by L. Ron Hubbard to buy the Scientology founder not one, but two yachts on which Hubbard planned to sail around the world with Parson’s wife.

In 1939, the same year that Clifton’s Brookdale opened its door to a hungry public, Parsons converted to Thelema, the occult religion created by Crowley, and soon came to head the California branch of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis. With L. Ron Hubbard, Parsons conducted a series of magical “experiments” he dubbed Babylon Working. These experiments consisted of Parsons masturbating onto magical tablets while Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto played in the background and Hubbard stood nearby taking notes. Hubbard later repaid this treatment by robbing Parsons blind.

Bradbury’s ghost now haunts Clifton’s Brookdale, where he is joined by the ghost of Clinton’s mistress, Terri Richmond, whose ashes were spread over the restaurant in 2011. Clinton’s affair with Richmond was no secret to his wife – the threesome even took vacations together – and in 1965 their steamy trysts launched a very successful business manufacturing “marital aids.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that during renovations, workers demolished a wall and found hidden behind it a still-burning neon light, which had apparently been shining non-stop for 77 years, making it quite possibly the world’s oldest continuously-illuminated neon light.

Hollywood Masonic Temple
Across from the Babylonian arch stands the Hollywood Masonic Temple, between whose self-serious Neo-Classical pillars hang a series of red banners advertising Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Carved into the top of the building is the inscription,FREEMASONRY BUILDS ITS TEMPLES AMONG THE NATIONS AND IN THE HEARTS OF MEN.”

Designed in 1921 by architect John C. Austin (a 32nd degree Mason), who also served as chief architect for the Griffith Park Observatory, the building was recently renamed the El Capitan Entertainment Centre and is now only a small part of the sprawling entertainment and tourism complex that has engulfed this section of the boulevard. Construction was managed by lodge master Charles E. Toberman, who also oversaw the construction of the Hollywood Bowl, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Max Factor Building, and the Roosevelt Hotel, the latter quite possibly the most haunted building in the city. The temple has long been rumored to be connected to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre across the street by a secret tunnel that runs under Hollywood Boulevard, though most believe this tunnel was demolished during the construction of the Red Line.

According to the LA Times, “In those early days when Hollywood was an independent city, the city attorney, city marshal, city treasurer and first mayor, George Dunlop, all were Masons . . . The city’s first newspaper and doctor’s office were established by members, and the city’s electric car service was owned and operated by brothers of the lodge.”

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Hollywood Masonic Temple, LA. Photo: Wikicommons.

They go on to say, “Many Freemasons were also notables in the fledgling film industry, among them Oliver Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., W.C. Fields, Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith,” whose film Intolerance is now forever memorialized across the street.

The address of this lodge is 6480 Hollywood Boulevard, and Secrets in Plain Sight notes somewhat disconnectedly, “6480 is an anagram for 8640, the number of the Sun (whose diameter is 864,000 miles) which is also 33% of the Earth’s Precessional Cycle of 25,920 years.”

The author goes on to write, “Disney builds its temples on the silver screen and in the Magic Kingdom (Disneyland). Although freemasons are no longer occupying the Hollywood Masonic Temple, recall the mysterious Club 33 at Disneyland which I discussed in my 33 post, linking Disney with the 33rd degree of Scottish Freemasonry.”

Another site discussing the same topic posts a photo of Simon Cowell riding a jet ski on which a Masonic emblem is clearly visible. (If you were a member of an ancient, international shadow organization bent on secrecy at all costs, why would you put a magical symbol on Simon Cowell’s jet ski? The answer, I suppose, is hubris.)

The Janes House
The oldest building still standing on Hollywood Boulevard is the whimsical little Victorian house at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard, known as the Janes House. The sweetly shingled, two-story house was built in 1902, eight years before Prospect Avenue changed its name to Hollywood Boulevard in an apparent nod to Druidic forces.

The house was purchased by Herman and Mary Janes, and their four children: Mabel, Carrie, Mary, and Donald. In 1911, the women of the family opened The Misses Janes School of Hollywood, initially a kindergarten that eventually expanded to include classes all the way up to eighth grade. The sisters taught the children of many notable L.A. figures of time, including those of Charlie Chapin, as well as known Masons Douglas Fairbanks and Cecil B. DeMille, the latter now the centerpiece of the rumored film The DeMille Conspiracy, described by Variety as “The Da Vinci Code meets Die Hard.”

 

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In the 1960s, Miss Mabel was my mother’s Sunday School teacher at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. My grandmother also attended the church, as did Esther Burkholder, who held the attention of 32,000 weekly readers of Food for Thot as well as a direct line to a man who more-or-less invented both Soylent and fruit-flavored lubricants. The church was also attended by my Aunt Caroline, who operated a beauty salon on Hollywood Boulevard. This aunt named her daughter Caroline, Jr., and was an early member of Self-Realization Fellowship, a religious organization founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda. Nor would Yogananda have minded this dual attendance, since one of the core missions of Self-Realization Fellowship is to reconcile Jesus’s teachings to the yogic teachings of Bhagavan Krishna, a belief my mother characterized, not unkindly, as Christianity plus reincarnation.

Today, the original house has been moved to the back of its lot and is presently home to a Prohibition-themed bar called No Vacancy, the latest in a string of businesses failing to capitalize on this lovely oddity.

The Griffith Park Observatory
The Griffith Park Observatory is a massive concrete edifice designed by Masonic architect John C. Austin in a style best described as indiscriminately monumental. The Observatory was officially gifted to the city in 1935, at a formal ball presided over by Clinton’s nemesis, Mayor Frank L. Shaw.

The interior boasts both one of the world’s largest Foucault’s pendulums and one of the world’s largest Tesla coils, in a sort of super-sized grab bag of esoteric charms. As a child, I stared in enraptured terror at the Tesla coil throwing off three-foot-long sparks. This coil was donated to the city of Los Angeles by Dr. Fredrick Finch Strong, a physician and theosophist who believed in “electrotherapeutics” to improve his patients’ “vibrations.” The coils were later restored with the help of Kenneth Strickfaden, who designed the special effects for the 1931 movie Frankenstein.

The Observatory sits in Griffith Park, the sprawling, largely undeveloped expanse that was originally Rancho Los Feliz, granted to José Vicente Feliz by the Spanish government, and supposedly later swindled away by Antonio Corone, prompting the Curse of the Felizes (unless you believe the curse predates even this incident and instead traces to the park’s Native American past). The rancho then passed through the hands of several wealthy men, including Elias “Lucky” Baldwin, before being acquired in 1882 by Griffith J. Griffith, a Welsh immigrant who went by the name Colonel Griffith despite having never served in the military. Griffith donated the Observatory and the 4,310-acre park in which it sits to the city in order to rehabilitate his reputation after the attempted murder of his wife, a crime for which he spent only two years in prison.

There are more paranormal stories in Griffith Park than can be retold here, from the ill-fated lovers crushed by a falling tree to the ingénue who committed suicide by leaping from the “H” in the Hollywood sign, from werewolf sightings to the ghostly screams of the firefighters trapped by the great fire of 1933 (the last dismissed by Los Angeles paranormal historian Richard Carradine as “probably just monkeys” that escaped from the zoo generations ago and now live wild among the sycamore and scrub of the urban park).

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Griffith Park Observatory, LA. Photo: Minuk/CC.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the eighties, Griffith Park was widely accepted to be the site of Satanic rituals. In a Los Angeles Times article from 1986 titled “SPCA Strives to Combat Animal Sacrifice,” the newspaper reports that “Members of satanic cults in the Southland have sacrificed animals and robbed human graves to follow the precepts of their bizarre religion, a Los Angeles police detective said last week. Cult members, mostly teenagers, believe that animal blood and human body parts have magical powers, according to Detective Patrick Metoyer of the criminal conspiracy division of the Los Angeles Police Department.”

While we frequented the park often during the day, my mother was hesitant to go at night, lest she run into one of the groups that left their spray-painted pentagrams all over retaining walls and boulders. In fact, the only time we would go the park at night would be in order to visit the Observatory, which – along with the spectacular hissing Tesla Coil and the vertiginous view from the top of the Observatory – gave those evening outings an aura of menace.

Architect John C. Austin lived in Pasadena, not far from the Agape Lodge, established by Parsons and other Thelemites at 1003 South Grove Avenue as a spiritual commune where, Wikipedia explains, the cultists took to “slaughtering their own livestock for meat as well as blood rituals.” It was in the compound’s chemistry lab that Parson would die in an explosion likely accidental, though some have suspected either murder or suicide.

Philosophical Research Society, Los Feliz
Across the street from Griffith Park, at 3910 Los Feliz Boulevard, stands the Philosophical Research Society, Alchemy Lab, and Magical Marketplace. The society was founded in by Manly P. Hall, a historian of the occult, who dedicated his life to collecting and preserving sacred texts. The Wisdom Library contains thousands of volumes, and is rumored to house a number of Satanic texts and books on black magic, which are said to be stored underneath a statue of the Buddha so that his calming energy might counterbalance those darker energies. In the top drawer of his desk, Hall also kept a humorous poem written by Aleister Crowley “about buggery,” as several sites describe it.

The building was designed by Hall’s friend, the architect Robert Stacy-Judd, a master of what is dubbed Mayan Revival Architecture. Stacy-Judd believed that the ancient Mayan civilization was founded by colonists fleeing the destruction of Atlantis, and his squat design for the Philosophical Research Society building looks like if seventh-century Palenque had a small for-profit vocational college.

Hall arrived in Los Angeles at the age of 17 and soon befriended a man named Sydney Brownson, who operated a phrenology booth on the Santa Monica Pier, which became a sort of seaside seminary for Hall in all things mystical. He went on to write a book amply titled An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy: Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages, a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet of hermeneutical wisdom, including myths and sacred teachings from China, Egypt, Greece, India, and the Americas.

President Ronald Reagan was a devotee of Hall’s work, and often quoted Hall’s story about a spectral Founding Father who entered the locked statehouse in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, delivered a rousing speech that emboldened the delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence, and then disappeared again through the locked doors, as mysteriously as he came.

In addition to presidents, Hall counted many celebrities among his admirers, including Bela Lugosi. During his life, Bela Lugosi would walk down Hollywood Boulevard every day to his favorite cigar store at 6423 Hollywood Boulevard, one block from where the Janes sisters were giving their lessons to the children of the Illuminati. After Lugosi died, the hearse driver tasked with transporting his body from the funeral home at 6250 Hollywood Boulevard supposedly lost control of the vehicle as Lugosi’s ghost steered the car on its own past the old cigar store.

My grandmother, an ordinary person with no connections to politicians, celebrities, or spiritual leaders, neither a Thelemite nor a 33-degree Mason, moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s. One of her friends from her mainline Protestant church in Los Angeles owned the haunted Silent Movie Theatre. Her sister-in-law was a member of one of the first “New Age” religions, and ran a beauty shop on Hollywood Boulevard by which Bela Lugosi’s possessed hearse once rolled. She sent my mother to Sunday school to be educated by one of three spinster sisters who lived in a crumbling Victorian house and once educated Cecil B. DeMille. Her best friend welcomed me into the world with an inspirational passage in the pages of a weekly newsletter that had buoyed the spirits of Depression-era Angelinos as they ate free food beside a fake stream burbling through a building that, unbeknownst to them all, housed the world’s longest-burning neon light, hidden in plain sight.