On May 25, 1904, community members gathered at the Halcyon Hotel and Sanatorium in rural Arroyo Grande to view a remarkable new device.
As they ran their hands through the X-ray machine, guests marveled at the “wonderful ray” and its ability to reveal the skeletal structure hidden beneath flesh. But for their hosts, followers of a metaphysical American religion known as Theosophy, the demonstration held special significance.
“To Temple members, this was really a scientific demonstration of esoteric spiritual forces being made practical to human beings,” Paul Eli Ivey writes in his new book, “Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science,” published by University of Minnesota Press.
According to Ivey, the founding members of Halcyon, the cooperative colony established in the Arroyo Grande Valley in 1903, followed twin paths to progress. By merging religion and science, he said, they laid the foundation for advances in art, technology and more.
“It’s hard to believe that such a small community had such a large influence,” said Ivey, professor of art history at the University of Arizona. “What was it about this particular place that encouraged an atmosphere of experimentation, that encouraged young people to look outside the box?”
Author of the 1999 book “Prayers in Stone: Christian Science Architecture in the United States, 1894 – 1930,” Ivey first visited Halcyon in early 1998 while researching American alternative religious architecture in California.
He was surprised to discover that the colony was still in operation, as most theosophist groups vanished by the 1940s. Temple members still live at the site.
“I saw an imaginative American story, and one that’s corrective to the idea that people who speak in spiritual terms can’t be scientists,” Ivey said.
Over the course of nine years, Ivey befriended Halcyon’s religious community, known as the Temple of the People since 1908, and explored its archives, pouring over pamphlets, photographs, personal letters and lecture notes.
According to Ivey, Halcyon’s roots reach back to Syracuse, New York, circa November 1898. That’s when physician William H. Dower and spiritual leader Francia Amanda LaDue, also known as Blue Star, officially founded the theosophical Temple movement.
Temple members are taught that “A person’s well-being really flows from his rapport with the cosmos,” Ivey explained, a concept that he described as uniquely American. “One thing that sets (Americans) apart is our optimistic faith.”
The New Age movement in many ways echoes Theosophy’s merging of elements of Western and Eastern religions as well as the occult.
Dower, LaDue and their followers soon brought their movement westward, migrating from the East Coast to the Central Coast. They established their settlement on the 200-acre Granville Shinn farm in the Arroyo Grande Valley near Oceano.
Dower’s nature-cure sanitarium, which emphasized both physical and spiritual health, opened in 1904 in the former home of Coffee T. Rice. There, he experimented with alternative forms of healing such as electrical currents, color therapy and naturopathy.
The Temple Home Association, a cooperative established to handle business concerns, leased land and oversaw everything from farming to construction, printing and souvenirs.
But the spiritual center of Halcyon was the Blue Star Memorial Temple, designed by architect Theodore Eisen in the shape of a convex triangle formed from three interlocking circles. “They saw it very much as a place where energy would gather,” Ivey said of the structure, completed in 1925.
Living in a place that emphasized both spiritual exploration and scientific innovation, Ivey said, it’s no surprise that Temple members such as avant-garde musician Henry Cowell and poet John Osborne Varian proved prominent.
Two of Varian’s sons, electrical engineers Russell and Sigurd Varian, founded Silicon Valley firm Varian Associates and invented the klystron tube, used to amplify high frequencies.
Physicist George Russell Harrison, whose father was Temple officer Ernest “Harry” Harrison, specialized in atomic spectral analysis. Awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom and the Presidential Medal for Merit for his contributions to national defense, he served as dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than two decades.
Although Halcyon never became the massive “city on the hill” its founders envisioned, Ivey said, its influence has been widespread.
“There’s a certain charm to Halcyon today,” he said. “I believe in its magic. I definitely do.”
If you go ...
Paul Ivey will speak about “Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science” and sign copies of his book Friday, May 3, at South County Historical Society headquarters. It’s his only public Central Coast appearance.
The event starts at 6 p.m. at the IOOF Hall, 128 Bridge St. in Arroyo Grande. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. For more information, call 489-8282.