It is the place with 1,000 names—the Court of Mysteries, the Yogi Temple, the Brick Castle, the Red Castle, the Gate of Prophecy, the Kitchen Property, the St. Elias Orthodox Chapel, the Unorthodox Chapel, the Surreal Estate, West Side’s Weird Site, eyesore, monstrosity, the Hall of WTF. Everyone who lives within two miles of the place likely has their own name for it.
Even the address is ambiguous. For years, it was known as 519 Fair Ave. Now, it’s officially 515 Fair.
It sprawls across four residential lots on Santa Cruz’s Westside and features a main house, an elaborate gate and two towers, all made from brick and mortar inlaid with abalone in a distinctive style that suggests Hindu-flavored folk art—unique certainly in Santa Cruz, maybe in the world.
For decades, it has been a local curiosity: abandoned, dangerous, dirty, and more than a little creepy.
But today, the Court of Mysteries is poised to begin a new era in its long, strange history. After years stuck in a bizarre state of real-estate limbo, the property has been purchased by a larger-than-life, gung-ho San Francisco couple eager to embrace its eccentricities and invite the community to celebrate its weirdness.
The husband-and-wife dynamic duo of Artina Morton and Douglas Harr are not only the new owners of the property, but they fashion themselves as its stewards, as well. At sunset on Halloween, the two will be on hand at the infamous site in a kind of meet-and-greet to chat up neighbors and answer questions about the building and their plans for it. Morton, a visual artist who once lived on the Eastside of Santa Cruz, will be in a Willy Wonka-style top hat. Harr is a veteran of the tech industry, most notably at the software and big-data giant Splunk, as well as an author of a new book on rock music. He’ll be the guy dressed as an enormous fly.
“But next Halloween, look out,” said Harr, when I visited him and his wife at the Temple site one recent sunny afternoon. The plan, he says, is that by Halloween 2020, the Temple will be the wildest, most gotta-see haunted house attraction in town.
The Court of Mysteries’ main house, which dates back to the late 1930s, has never been formally inhabited. Harr and Morton won’t live there, either. They are building their private home right next door on the property’s southernmost (beachside) lot.
They purchased the property in February 2016 for just under $1.6 million and have spent more than $200,000 on renovations to the Court’s buildings, which includes a meticulous re-creation of the signature towers at the front of the property. They’re building a fountain between the ornate gate and the main building, a lap pool on the property’s back end, and they are repurposing the wellhouse—the only structure on the grounds that has not survived—as a gathering place around the property’s well, in which they’ll install lights visible through a metal grate.
The new owners envision the property as a new kind of thing, a quasi-public space that they plan to open several times a year for curious visitors, not only during Halloween, but for the holidays and the annual Open Studios art tour. “We want to map it to the Hindu holidays,” says Morton, who maintains a blog on the renovation of the site (redbrickcastle.com) and also took over a Yelp page about it established years ago.
“This year is all about letting people know what’s going on,” says Morton in reference to Halloween at the site. “People can come by, ask questions, get a peek at what’s going on. We want to get it to the point where it’s a draw for the neighborhood.”
And, for the record, Morton has her own name for the place. As if she’s still test-marketing it, she pronounces, “I call it ‘Ohana Hygge.’” (That’s ohana, as in the Hawaiian term for the emotional bonds between close friends and relatives; and hygge, a Danish term describing a happy or contented life).
OK, make that 1,001 names.
The Man Called Kitchen
The story about the origins of the Court of Mysteries is a ball wrapped in the twine of lore and legend around a small core of known fact. The site is the handiwork of a man named Kenneth Kitchen. According to local historian Carolyn Swift, Kitchen—along with his brother Raymond Kitchen—purchased quite a bit of land on Santa Cruz’s Westside during the Great Depression, when much of that area was open fields and small farms.
One of the Kitchen brothers was a stonemason and the other was a bricklayer, and they kept busy building houses in the area (though, by most accounts, the brothers didn’t exactly enjoy a harmonious relationship; one of the more persistent legends about the Kitchen Brothers has to do with a very public street brawl between the two of them). Some time in the late 1930s (some sources say the ’40s), Kenneth Kitchen began his dream project on a plot of land he owned on Fair Avenue, a byzantine, temple-like building inspired by his interest in Hindu iconography and the Occult. (Legend has it that Kitchen mostly built the temple at night by the light of the moon, and evidently, even he never lived in the main building, preferring to sleep in an adjacent yogi shack.)
One story has it that Kitchen became a student of famed Indian yogi and monk Yogananda Paramahansa, author of the 1946 bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi. As the story goes, Kitchen returned to Santa Cruz and began to build the temple in tribute to the yogi and his teachings.
Whatever its origins, it’s clear that the temple, the gate and the obelisk towers were built from devotion and attention to detail. The arched windows, the inlaid abalone, the symbolic references, and the lotus flower shapes (that look like surfboards to the contemporary eye) all attest to a passion of an artist developing a highly personal expression.
“You see that?” said Artina Morton, pointing above the entrance to what appeared to be links in a chain carved from stone. “That’s the ‘Chain of Love’ you find on some Hindu temples over their entry.”
Capitola’s Michael Threet is the stonemason the new owners brought in to restore Kitchen’s work. “It’s just phenomenal the craftsmanship he used in that place,” said Threet. The Court of Mysteries’ walls and ceiling were reinforced with rebar.
“Back in that era,” said Threet, “not very many people were doing that, if any. I’m still doing fireplace rebuilds from the ’89 earthquake. Even then, a lot of them didn’t have rebar in them. For him to have the foresight to build it that way, it’s astounding.”
Much of the abalone used in the exteriors had fallen away, or was otherwise missing through theft or vandalism. For the past three years, Threet has been painstakingly re-creating those abalone features. The materials from the demolished wellhouse, which had been destroyed by literal sledgehammer-wielding vandals years ago, provided Threet with much of the material to rebuild the towers and the temple. “We kept every brick and piece of abalone,” he said. “I also have some friends who are divers, and they’ve donated a lot of abalone shells for the project. So that’s been nice too, to have the local people involved.”
Years of Ruin
It’s not only a seismic miracle that Kitchen’s creation is still standing. The Court of Mysteries has endured in the midst of a breathtaking transformation in the Santa Cruz real-estate market, from sleepy ex-urban farms to million-dollar-plus valuations.
For unknown reasons, Kenneth Kitchen abandoned his dream architectural project and sold the property some time in the 1950s or early 1960s. He then promptly disappeared from the official record. The new owner was a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church named Elias Karim who wanted to establish a chapel on the site. According to an account in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Father Karim’s shrine was dedicated in early 1963.
Soon thereafter, however, Karim’s church transferred him to Oklahoma, and, at that point, Kitchen’s Court of Mysteries entered into a state of real-estate limbo that lasted for decades. Karim died, and the property was inherited by his family, none of whom had Santa Cruz roots. Neglectful absentee ownership led to problems.
Perhaps more than any other individual, Santa Cruz architect Mark Primack is responsible for saving the Court of Mysteries from demolition. Primack had led a similar effort to save the fabled Tree Circus in Scotts Valley, which featured bizarre grafts of living trees engineered by arborist Axel Erlandson. Commercial pressures doomed the Tree Circus, but Primack led the effort to move many of Erlandson’s trees to a sanctuary near Gilroy.
For many years, into the 1990s, the Court of Mysteries was a neighborhood nightmare.
“The police would get calls every weekend,” says Primack. “People were having parties there. Homeless people sleeping there. There were even fires being set.”
Meanwhile, Karim’s son Andrew was in Oklahoma City, fielding complaints from 1,300 miles away.
“They didn’t do anything to secure the property,” says Primack. “They made some attempts to sell it. I think they were seeing millions of dollars. But finally, they understood that to sell the property, it was going to have to have value, which in their view means those buildings needed to be gone.”
Primack, who was on the City Zoning Board at the time, worked with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to have the Court of Mysteries declared a historic structure, thus saving it from demolition. Andrew Karim was not happy at first (“He called me up to give me a lecture on property rights,” remembers Primack), but eventually he acquiesced and agreed to secure the property from trespassing and vandalism.
Primack worked with him and volunteers at the Homeless Garden Project to bring in a caretaker on the lot (who lived in a trailer on the site, with a couple of Rottweilers to get the point across to would-be trespassers). The property was cleaned up. The police calls stopped. But the state of limbo continued into a new, extended period. Primack, working with the Karim family, drew up plans for development of the site that, he felt, respected the Court of Mysteries and its heritage. The job even went out to bid. But those plans never came to pass.
“(Karim) was just too far away,” says Primack. “The family just kept vacillating between ‘We love this property, we should fix it up,’ and, ‘Maybe we should just sell it and ask a lot of money for it.’ They couldn’t get it together to renovate the house, and they just kept lowering their price.”
Paul Zech calls himself a “hungry guy.” A veteran real-estate agent, Zech considers himself a kind of specialist in developing vacant land. “There’s nothing more difficult to do in real estate,” he said, “than to take a piece of vacant land and try to do something with it.” The Kitchen property was not vacant land, but it had no infrastructure, no septic or sewer, no water, no electricity.
Like many Santa Cruzans, and certainly like many local real-estate agents, Zech was fascinated by the Court of Mysteries. His hunger for a challenge led him to poke around the site and there he saw a sign, tipped over and lying in the weeds: “For Sale, By Owner.”
“I thought, ‘Why would there be a for-sale-by-owner sign with an out-of-town area code?’” says Zech. “So I sat right there in front of the place and called.”
He left a message. A bit later, he got a call back. It was Andrew Karim who, by this time, was living in Atlanta. At that point, it had been more than 50 years since his father purchased the property from Kitchen.
According to Zech, Karim told him something surprising, even unbelievable. “He told me, ‘You’re the first real-estate agent in Santa Cruz County to ever call me.’”
Zech jumped at the chance to represent the property. But he knew it would not be an easy sell. The owner didn’t even have the key to the lock on the door. Zech had to get the lock cut and use a screw gun to get into the property.
“The bigger and tougher the challenge, and the more creative you have to get, that’s the game I like to play,” Zech says. “I told my wife, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to sell this. We’re going to be sitting on this for a long time. I mean, it’s not even a habitable house. It’s a liability that the (Historic Preservation Commission) has their eye on. It’s going to take a unique buyer.”
Enter Doug Harr and Artina Morton.
The couple were looking to get out of San Francisco, find something where they could stretch out, maybe a compound where they could invite close friends to live nearby. Because she had once lived there, Morton kept returning to Santa Cruz in her mind. “There’s no place like Santa Cruz,” she says. “It’s a magical island unto itself.”
They found a piece of property on the East Side near Chaminade, but couldn’t make it work. Then, they stumbled upon the Court of Mysteries.
“Doug was immediately drawn to it,” said Morton. “Neither one of us knew anything about it. But it was pretty compelling—this huge lot, weird structures. We needed to know more.”
Complications would follow. At first, the asking price was well above the couple’s comfort level. They sought the advice of locals in the market, who quickly discouraged them for tangling with such a troublesome property. The couple’s original idea was to “finish” the main house; Kitchen had built stairs that went to a second floor that was never constructed. That plan proved to be unworkable.
Still, the property’s magic worked on them.
“Doug couldn’t write the check fast enough,” says Zech. “He didn’t want anyone else to have that property.”
The Paramahansa story deeply connected with Harr, because of his brother who became a monk at a fellowship founded by the famous yogi.
Morton was a tougher sell. One day, she got a call from her husband. “I’m going by that red brick place again,” he said. A bit later, he called again, telling her there was a real-estate agent on site and that they could see the inside of the place. She told him, “OK, but if I walk in that building and there’s weird mojo, we are out of this place.”
“I had a kerosene lamp and a couple of flashlights,” remembers Zech. “All the windows were boarded up. The only thing we could do was open the front door. You couldn’t see anything.”
The interior was coated with dirt and graffiti covered the walls. But there was no garbage, or other sign of human habitation. “I took one step inside,” says Morton, “and it was just so overwhelmingly positive and peaceful.”
“My take on Artina,” says Zech, “was, well, here she was married to this guy who wanted to do the deal. And she’s got to be the one to keep it together. She was cautious. But now, who’s the real lover and champion of that property? It’s her. She’s got great vision. I would just listen to her over different visits to the property when we were in escrow. And, man, she just had it wired.”
The Court of Mysteries was on the market only 89 days after Zech first took it on. That was more than three years ago now. Since then, Harr and Morton have been living in a nearby rental while the renovations of the building and the construction of their own home next door continue. They move into their new home in January. Some locals are grateful to them for bringing life to a long-derelict property. Others are dubious about the construction going on in the Court of Mysteries’ shadow.
“Look,” says Zech, “they did the neighborhood a favor. They did the city a favor. They did the Historical Preservation Commission a favor. We’re all lucky that they came along.”
Harr and Morton said that they are interested in erecting a historical plaque paying tribute to Kenneth Kitchen and his vision on the sidewalk in front of the property. And they want to be part of the ongoing oral history of the site.
“We’re still looking for stories from people about their experiences with this place,” says Morton. “We want to collect those stories from locals and hopefully write a book one day.”
Near the end of my visit, Morton invited me to follow her into the back of the structure, saying “Let me show you something.” We entered into one of the twin “carriage house” spaces in the structure. One will be her art studio. The other his music man-cave.
It was there that she bent down over a couple of hundred small ceramic tiles, engraved with writing and illustrations. She had unearthed these cryptic tiles buried on the grounds that she’s now collecting to put to use in the building’s renovation. Only the ghosts of the Kitchen Brothers could tell her what they are and what they signify. But they’re not talking. Still, the tiles represent a kind of totem handed down through the generations from the creator of the Court of Mysteries to the couple that fate has tabbed as its stewards.
An hour earlier, gregarious and bearish Doug Harr said the same thing, “Let me show you something.” Standing in an empty space, he smiled broadly and said, “Here’s where we put the pinball machine.”