At the end of May, the Esotouric crew had a rare opportunity to tour a Southern California landmark which has long obsessed us: Sister Aimee Semple McPherson's 1929 Moorish-style castle, perched high above Lake Elsinore.
The property has been in private hands for decades, including several years when it was inhabited by squatters. It has only recently returned to the possession of a Foursquare Gospel congregation, which has begun the process of restoring the property and intends to open it up for occasional tours. (Sign up for the Esotouric newsletter if you'd like to stay informed about tours of the house.)
Sister Aimee's Castle is a truly fascinating place, and our visit did nothing to dispell our obsession. Although located in remote Riverside County, it is a house born of Hollywood. In the late 1920s, the famed radio evangelist was in desperate need of a private retreat away from her Echo Park church and neighboring parsonage, where she could relax with her family and avoid the prying eyes of reporters. When, as a marketing ploy, the Clevelin Realty Corporation offered her several plum plots at the tippy top of the newly formed Country Club Heights District, Aimee gratefully accepted.
The developers knew that Aimee would build something spectacular, but her collaboration with the little-known architect Edwin Bickman took spectacle to a new level.
Recently returned from a trip to the Holy Land, Aimee chose to build a sprawling residence inspired by the Moorish architecture that had thrilled her soul–but carefully calibrated to serve as a machine for living for her very unusual Southern California family. To tour the Castle today is to feel as though you were being guided through the property by Aimee herself.
Aimee's Castle is intended to be "read" from bottom to top. The narrative begins on the road into Lake Elsinore, where flashes of white walls, blue tiled domes and golden spires draw the eye, and the heart, towards the peak.
Once she reached the hill, the whole valley was spread out beneath her, allowing an easy scan of the bare hillsides for any reporter who might be lurking.
But should a stranger be seen, there was nothing to fear. The enclosed garage would simply swallow up Aimee and her big car. Once inside, she was safe within the cocoon of her own making, and the story of the house began to unfold.
Remember: bottom to top. From the garage, she mounted steep steps to enter an astonishing fantasia: a rough-hewn concrete ascending tunnel, inspired by the Via Dolorosa, the path of Christ's journey through ancient Jerusalem.
But instead of climbing to Golgotha to be crucified, Aimee rose up to the top of the mountain, where she was perfectly safe. The next private space is a tiled and vaulted exercise room, where the wee evangelist could strengthen her body for the spiritual trials which lay ahead of her.
Then upward again, into the house itself. Through cool hallways, into ornate doorways…
…until finally the heart of the house is revealed. A great room, open onto the sky and the lake below, its vault painted with intricate, gem-like Islamic figures, the walls fresco'd with illusionary folds of patterned cloth.
A later owner painted over these fantastic wall treatments, but we suspect they're still hidding under the whitewash, until the glorious day when careful hands and gentle solvents can bring them back into the light again.
At one end of the great room is a neat little atrium, with a deep central fountain, tiled all around. (The murals are new, restorations suggestive of what was there before.)
On opposite sides, shuttered windows lead into two bedrooms: Sister Aimee's room on the lake side, and her childrens' room on the hill side. This ingenious structure allowed mother and child to call to each other across the open air, while each retaining their privacy.
Central to the atrium is one extraordinary large tile panel of a friendly little griffin with irridescent wings.
Tile is everywhere in Aimee's Castle, much of it in the geometric Moorish style. The tile was so remarkable that we returned a few weeks later with our friend Brian Kaiser, Southern California's tile expert, to ask his opinion on what we had seen and how the current owners can best maintain and preserve what they have.
Brian knew from the moment he arrived that the trip was worth his time. For at the very front of the house, nestled above a boat-shaped pond, is an astonishingly rare Rufus Keeler dolphin waterspout for Calco, one of only four known to survive. This masterpiece of the terra cotta arts was cast in a single piece (the cracked fins were caused by the wall settling), hand-glazed, and repeatedly fired at low temperature over many days. There is no one alive who has the skill to replicate this delightful object–even if there were, the cost of production would be so great as to be beyond the means of any but the richest patrons. Brian is an expert on Keeler's work for Calco and Malibu, and lives in the potter's home in South Gate.
Back inside, here is Aimee's glorious green sink.
And her deep bathtub…
…with its delightful little sea creature spout.
The little fishy gazes across the tub and up to a witty crescent moon window.
At the other end of the great room, down a few steps, is the square jewel box dining room, with its soaring, mirrored ceiling and mock-fabric wall treatments.
But the story of bottom to top doesn't end with the beautiful, but really rather modest living quarters. For Sister Aimee had a private space, at the very top of the Castle, where she could be alone with her faith. And upon reaching it, we realized that the entire Castle had been built to create this spiritual space at its highest point.
Up on the roof, between the domes and the minarets, is a little tower room, painted with flames. Inside, only a kneeling chair and the sky. Here, Sister Aimee prayed and planned for her holy work in Los Angeles late into the night. She never needed much sleep. And there was so much work to do.
Lake Elsinore didn't become the exclusive retreat the developers had hoped for. The stock market crashed, and the depression came, and then the lake itself dried up for a time.
After a few years, Sister Aimee sold her Castle and used the proceeds to feed the people of Los Angeles. A reclusive lady lived there for many years, and when she died, the squatters moved in. But somehow, they seemed to sense that the Castle needed to be cared for, and they were gentle with the house and with the furnishings and art within. Perhaps they sensed the genius of the house, who died in Oakland not long after she left this place behind. We certainly sensed her all around us as we moved through the palace of her dreams.
Let us leave her there, with late night thoughts of the great work to be done.