Why is a 25-foot-tall pyramid in SLO? Here’s the story behind this graveyard mystery

Editor’s note: This is the second installation in The Tribune’s new series “That’s SLO Weird,” exploring the things that make SLO County so wonderful and so ... well ... weird.

Like a latter-day Taj Mahal, the Dorn Pyramid sits above San Luis Cemetery, also known as Odd Fellows Cemetery, as a somber monument to a lost love.

But the two-story-tall, 113-year-old Dorn Pyramid shares something else in common with the Taj Mahal: It has become so much more than just a grave marker. It is an enduring part of San Luis Obispo’s mythos, spoken of in the same breath as Bubblegum Alley and the Madonna Inn.

Unsurprisingly, the Dorn Pyramid is also the site of a mystery: Why is the man whose name is on the pyramid not interred inside it?

Like many good stories, it begins with young, doomed love.

Cora and Fred Dorn Photo
Cora and Fred Dorn Sr. pose for a photograph during their 1901 visit to Yosemite Valley. Courtesy of Megan Linder

Love and tragedy

Born in 1865 in Marysville, Fred Adolphus Dorn grew up to become one of San Luis Obispo’s moneyed elite.

In 1894, he was elected San Luis Obispo County district attorney.

Dorn was the master of San Luis Obispo’s Masonic lodge, King David’s Lodge No. 209, and belonged to both the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Native Sons of the Golden West, according to Robert Sachs, current King David’s Lodge master and one of the lorekeepers of the Dorn legend.

In 1890, Dorn married Cora Russell, “a very influential woman in town,” Sachs said.

Cora Russell was the eldest daughter of Charles Jay Russell, a county supervisor, merchant, real estate investor and member of the San Luis Obispo Knights Templar.

“I don’t think it is a huge leap to presume that it is Charles who introduced Fred Dorn, who became a member of the Knights Templar on Nov. 12, 1889, to his daughter Cora,” Megan Linder, whose great-grandmother was Cora’s younger sister, wrote in an email.

In 1905, Cora Dorn gave birth to a son, Fred Jr.

However, Dorn’s joy soon turned to tragedy.

Fred Dorn Jr. died on the day he was born. A few days later, Cora Dorn died as well. One could be forgiven for thinking the Russell family was cursed.

“The year before (Cora Dorn) conceived her child, her mother died. Then she has her child, her baby dies, and then she dies. And then her sister dies. And then her father dies. All within a three year period of time,” Sachs said.

Cora and Fred Dorn Sr.jpg
Courtesy of Megan Linder

Grief and stone

Given his status as a Freemason, it’s not surprising that Dorn channeled his grief into building the monument that would come to be known as Dorn Pyramid. The Masonic love of pyramids is the stuff of legends, conspiracy theories and more than a few books, TV shows and movies.

“A lot of it is, in some ways, celebrating the significance masons hold to geometry,” Sachs said. “Freemasons use symbols of geometry to teach lessons.”

To build the mausoleum, Dorn brought in granite all the way from Porterville. This being before the days of California freeways, Dorn had to build special wagons to transport all that stone.

The Dorn Pyramid sits atop a hill in San Luis Cemetery, also known as Odd Fellows Cemetery, in San Luis Obispo. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The pyramid’s placement on a hill overlooking the cemetery was no accident.

“The weight of the granite was so heavy, that this (hill) was the only place they could put this (pyramid). Because anywhere else, it would sink,” Sachs said. “This is a serpentine outcrop. It’s solid rock.”

Once the pyramid was built in 1905, Dorn interred his wife and son inside. Their names were engraved on the side of the pyramid along with Dorn’s.

Sachs said Dorn left the pyramid unsealed so that he could one day join his family in death.

Then life happened.

The names of Cora Russell Dorn, her son, Fred Adolphus Dorn Jr., and her husband, Fred Adolphus Dorn, are carved on the exterior of the Dorn Pyramid in San Luis Cemetery in San Luis Obispo. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A new family

“Fred Dorn went on a cruise and met another woman. Which is reasonable — he was a young man,” Sachs said.

Dorn ultimately remarried and moved up to the Bay Area. When he died in 1940, he was buried in San Francisco’s Cypress Lawn Memorial Park.

Sachs said Dorn’s new family wasn’t interested in dealing with a monument to his old family, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

An enduring mystery

The Dorn Pyramid in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in San Luis Obispo.Photo by Joe Johnston 05-11-18 Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Legend has it that one dark and possibly stormy night in the 1960s, “A mysterious Cadillac pulled into the cemetery parking lot,” Sachs said. “Some man came through with a box, went inside the crypt and came out with nothing.”

This led to speculation that Dorn, or at least some of his ashes, had finally rejoined his former wife and child in the tomb marked “DISTVRB NOT THE SLEEP OF DEATH.”

In January 2018, Sachs and his Masonic brothers prepared to seal the pyramid, which has sat unfinished for more than a century. They attempted to inspect the crypt inside to see if there was any truth to the legend.

“But we couldn’t get in,” he said.

Time, and vandals had rendered the crypt impossible to open without damaging the historic landmark. Even snaking a camera into the crypt failed to turn up an answer.

“He may or may not be in there. It remains a mystery. Which is great, because it remains a mystery,” Sachs said.

A city monument

Whether Dorn rejoined Cora and Fred Jr. or not, his pyramid will soon be sealed for good.

Sachs hired a crew from Santa Barbara to insert the final three stones into the pyramid last January 2018. At 11 a.m. on June 22, the final seam will be sealed in a ceremony that will include surviving members of the Dorn and Russell families as well as San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon and Masonic VIPs from across California.

Far from being just a house for the dead, the Dorn Pyramid has become a place where the City of San Luis Obispo comes to life.

“Worldwide, everybody knows this pyramid,” Sachs said. “This is a city monument. It is a curiosity that people see from (Highway 101). It is a curiosity that people see coming from Higuera (Street). People come here. Lovers come here. Movie watchers come here. Picnickers come here.”

Have an idea for “That’s SLO Weird?” We want to hear it. Send your questions about anything — from a strange landmark to an unusual bit of folklore — to asheeler@thetribunenews.com.

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Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler