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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Lemurian Fellowship still generates income through their woodworking skills, and are known for their high-quality music stands and cases.
Sadly, however, they no longer make the metal pulls that I love.
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.
The Rhu House itself is probably the greatest testament to the Lemurians' embrace of Modernist design...
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.
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.
By that time in his career, Cody was mostly designing buildings that evoked a more pared down, International style with less ornamentation.
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.
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.
In fact, this organic, geometric design apparently references many of the forms that are important to the Lemurian philosophy.
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...