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A Palm Springs Architect In San Diego (and the Lost Continent of Mu)

Updated: May 31, 2019

Rhu House at the Lemurian Fellowship (1969), by architect William Cody. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I was recently asked to contribute to an upcoming book about the work of one of my favorite architects, William Cody. I had previously collaborated with the same team for an exhibit on Cody's work at the LA Architecture + Design Museum, and so I was happy to help. As part of this project, I was asked if I'd run up to the mountains above San Diego to get a few shots of a little-known project that Cody had done in 1969, for a mystical fellowship called the Lemurians... I think I said yes before they'd even finished asking the question

Rhu House at the Lemurian Fellowship (1969), by architect William Cody. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Anyone who lives in San Diego has, at one time or another, likely passed by the sign off Route 67 in Ramona, and wondered what the Lemurian Fellowship was all about.

Thanks to my friends at Modern San Diego, Objects USA, and Esoteric Survey, I was well aware that there was a Cody-designed Modernist compound up there, but I had never taken the time or opportunity to venture out there to explore. This photo assignment gave me the perfect excuse to take a look and learn more.

View of the Rhu House at the Lemurian Fellowship. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Contrary to some speculation that I've heard, there are no lemurs at the Lemurian Fellowship. It's not an animal sanctuary (save for a really cute old white lab).

Office and residences of the Lemurian Fellowship. Cody modified these existing concrete block structures and integrated them into the design of the adjacent Rhu House. Photo ©Darren Bradley

In fact, the name comes from a 19th century theory about the lost continent of Mu, or Lemuria. This theory about a lost continent that has since sunk beneath either the Indian or Pacific Ocean was commonly used to explain various phenomenon such as Easter Island, Cuzco, and Nan Madol - ancient civilizations with beliefs and technology that cannot be explained even today. According to this theory, a lost continent would have once provided a land bridge, allowing species to populate different land masses. This could also explain the missing fossil record for the missing link and the origins of man. It would also explain how so much technology and knowledge has been lost, from these remnants of once more advanced civilizations. Atlantis is believed to have been a similar concept, but in the Atlantic Ocean.

Map outlining the supposed locations of Lemuria and Atlantis.

This theory of lost continents like Lemuria and Atlantis fell out of favor in the scientific community once the theory of plate tectonics was understood. But the lost continents have continued to be embraced by various spiritual and religious orders, such as the Theosophists (who founded the campus of what is today Point Loma Nazarene University) and, yes, the Lemurian Fellowship (who are not associated with the former). Because of San Diego's geographic location on the Pacific Ocean, it became a beacon for those who embraced the idea of the lost continent of Mu... That's why Lomaland was built where it was, too.

Original buildings of Lomaland, where the Theosophical Society was based on Point Loma in San Diego. Now home to Point Loma Nazarene University. Several of the original buildings remain, although not these.

Admittedly, I don't know much about Lemuria. Prior to this visit, most of what I knew came from reading a bit about the Theosophists who founded Lomaland. Before that, it was really just from listening to the band KLF in the late 80s and early 90s.

Didn't see anything like this at the Lemurian Fellowship... This is a still from "The Rites of Mu", from the electronic band KLF. The band was also known as "The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu".

Sadly, my visit to the Lemurian Fellowship was a bit anti-climatic after all that. I was warmly greeted over coffee and homemade chocolate chip cookies by some of the nicest folks I've ever met (and the aforementioned white lab).

There were no hooded robes to be found anywhere, alas, but one of them was wearing a hoodie...

The Lemurians were founded by Dr. Robert D. Stelle in Chicago in the 1930s. But soon, he decided to head to the warmer climes and freer spirits of Southern California, where he eventually settled in Ramona, a little town in the foothills above San Diego.

Dr. Robert D. Stelle, the Founder of the Lemurian Fellowship. Photo courtesy of the Lemurian Fellowship.

Ad that I found in the November 1958 issue of Desert Magazine, referencing the ancient mystical character "Rhu Sol Ku", who would lend his name to the Rhu House..

To support themselves, Dr. Stelle and his community took to making and selling crafts - wood and metalwork. In the 50s and 60s, this work had a decidedly Modernist aesthetic, with a reputation for quality and beauty.

line of lathe-turned dinnerware, called “Simplicity,” with plates, bowls, salad servers and “beakers” appeared in the Fall, 1949 issue of Furniture Forum Magazine. Thanks to Dave Hampton/Objects USA.

Their work started appearing for sale in chic furniture and design showrooms in San Diego and throughout the country. Even today, many examples of their wood vases and metal cabinet pulls and doorknobs can be found in mid-century modern homes throughout the region.

Lemurian Crafts ad from a 1946 issue of Desert Magazine. Thanks to Dave Hampton/Objects USA for the find.

In 1952, MoMA in New York even added one of their pieces to its permanent collection.

The Lemurian Fellowship still generates income through their woodworking skills, and are known for their high-quality music stands and cases.

Interior of the Rhu House, showing some examples of their work from the past (such as the lamp, a collaboration with artists Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley, and a more recent music stand. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Sadly, however, they no longer make the metal pulls that I love.

Display board with samples of the sorts of metalwork that the Lemurian Crafts used to produce. The lamp, sculpture, and wood working on the shelves are also from the Lemurians. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Modernism was a natural fit for the Lemurians, because in the early to mid-20th century, it conveyed a progressive spirit that eschewed conventional thinking. But by the 1970s, the Lemurians began to move away from the Modernist aesthetic, like so many others. Question of taste and perception, I guess. But it was wonderful to see that legacy still being cherished at the Fellowship, with so many objects from their Modernist past visible around the compound.

I was seriously coveting that lamp in the foreground, which features an enamel by San Diego artists Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Rhu House itself is probably the greatest testament to the Lemurians' embrace of Modernist design...

That glorious glass wall looking out over the Ramona valley. Photo ©Darren Bradley

This building was designed by Palm Springs architect William Cody. One of the members of the Fellowship was from Palm Springs and knew him from there, and so invited him to design their compound.

Palm Springs architect William Francis Cody (1916-1978)

Although built in 1969, the design appears to be much earlier. There's a simple explanation for that: Cody originally designed this project a decade earlier, in 1959. It just took a lot of time to finally get built.

Art and nature blending seamlessly. Photo ©Darren Bradley

That fireplace..! Photo ©Darren Bradley

Views of the surrounding mountains and valley from every angle. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The house really does embrace a sense of transparency and connection to its natural surroundings like few I've experienced. Photo ©Darren Bradley

By that time in his career, Cody was mostly designing buildings that evoked a more pared down, International style with less ornamentation.

Cody also designed the Tamarisk Country Club Fairway Condominiums in 1969 - the same year as the Lemurian Fellowship was built. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Interior view of Cody's Tamarisk Country Club Condos from 1969. Photo ©Darren Bradley

By contrast, Rhu House clearly renders homage to Frank Lloyd Wright and his organic Modernist design language. In fact, the whole place reminded me of Wright's Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin.

Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, WI, by Frank Lloyd Wright (1951). Cody was undoubtedly thinking about this building when designing the Lemurian Fellowship. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Both were designed on a triangular plan. I wish I could find a copy of the Rhu House plan that I saw there, but here's a copy of Wright's Unitarian Meeting House, for context.

Plan of Wright's Unitarian Meeting House.

In fact, this organic, geometric design apparently references many of the forms that are important to the Lemurian philosophy.

Something called the Becker-Hagens Grid, tracing points on the earth. Note the use of gridded triangles, similar to the plan of the Rhu House design, as seen in plan.

Regardless of your thoughts about Lemuria, the Fellowship's crafts and stewardship of this Modernist legacy are to be respected and applauded. I look forward to my next visit! Also, I really want to try to find some of those boomerang door handles...

Doors of the office of the Lemurian Fellowship. Cody redesigned these existing buildings to integrate them into his Rhu House. Check out those door handles! Photo ©Darren Bradley

There's symbolism in nearly every aspect of the design. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Special thanks to the Lemurian Fellowship for their warm hospitality in welcoming me to their home. More information about them can be found here.

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