The Kitchen Brothers epitomized the popular saying “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” through their strange architectural designs and mystical leanings more than 50 years before the slogan caught on. Kenneth Kitchen was a bricklayer and Raymond Kitchen was a stonemason each with their quirky specialties: Kenneth’s was submarine interference and Raymond’s was the construction of large dome-shaped brick fireplaces.
In 1946 Kenneth Kitchen designed and built the abalone-inlaid brick temple known as the Court of Mysteries, Watts Towers, and the red palace, among other names, at 519 Fair Avenue. Raymond Kitchen was responsible for the concrete, India-influenced temple down the street at 1211 Fair Avenue, now just an empty lot between the recycling center and the house on the corner of Fair and McPherson. According to neighbors, both brothers built at night by the light of the moon, due to their beliefs in Eastern mythology and also because neither brother obtained building permits.
Raymond’s temple was an intriguing design, built of different shaped stones, with a dome-topped tower on one side that actually functioned as the largest fireplace in Santa Cruz. (Check out a photo of the structure on Bratton Online.) He was so talented at building fireplaces, several Hollywood stars (which ones are unknown) hired him for this craft. Raymond left Santa Cruz around 1950 and Dr. Stoller, founder of Aloha Medicinals, a mushroom biotechnology company, finished the structure in 1954. He ran his business there for the next 50 years or so until it was torn down sometime after 2011. You can see a picture of the site with the temple in this 2011 google maps photo. Despite this building’s undeniable strangeness, it’s his brother Kenneth’s Court of Mysteries, which really captures the imagination.
Abalones & Prophecies
When you first see the Court of Mysteries you have to stop what you’re doing and ponder this odd piece of architecture. An arched entryway, known as the Gate of Prophecy, is made of carefully placed bricks inlaid with abalone. At the top of the arch is a cement triangle decorated with a circle of abalone shells. A crescent moon sits at 12 o’clock and the sun at 6. According to an anonymous interviewee from the book The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture, “Kenneth believed it was possible for [these symbols] to move. When they lined up over a point on axis with the [temple’s] fireplace it would signal the end of the world, or at least the United States.” Before vandals destroyed it, there was a matching astrological design above the fireplace.
The abalones that decorate the mysterious triangle were collected from the local abalone processing plant’s trash pile. The processing plant operated until 1997 when commercial abalone hunting in California was banned because the local population had declined near extinction. If only the Gate of Prophecy could have predicted the abalone’s demise …
Through the gate is the temple: a low-ceilinged brick building, also inlaid with abalone mosaics. Construction plans show that Kenneth was going to add a second story and dome, but never did. As one story goes, he was building the temple in an effort to win the heart of a local woman. The plan didn’t work which may be why he ceased building and then disappeared without a trace.
Protecting Santa Cruz from Enemy Subs
There are many stories that surround the Court of Mysteries and no one knows for certain which are true. One such story is that submerged in the waters of the temple’s brick well, Kenneth installed some sort of mechanism to interfere with the radio signals of German submarines.
The Japanese submarine attack that occurred just 20 miles off the shore of Monterey in 1941, in addition to the fact that the mile-deep Monterey Bay Canyon provided the ideal entry point for more submarines, may have inspired Kenneth to take his own preemptive measures. With only an eighth-grade education, Kenneth installed a custom-made “submarine-stopping device.” This involved burying a spoked wheel of railroad ties in the center of his property and building two obelisks (tall stone pillars with pyramidal tops) on either side. One pillar sent radio signals to submarines and the other received them, supposedly jamming up the signals for enemy crafts.
Kenneth was rumored by his neighbors to have hosed down his mattress every night to keep himself awake in order to listen to submarine signals. According to neighbors interviewed in A Sidewalk Companion, he would remain in bed for days at a time, just listening, and his brother Raymond would bring him food. One interviewee quoted in the book said that the strange device actually worked, and the Navy sent Kenneth to Penascola, Florida to get him out of their hair for awhile. A second neighbor said that the government wanted his design for the radio towers (the tall obelisks) and actually broke into the temple to steal the plans.
The Unsolved Mystery of Kenneth Kitchen Solved!
After being sent to Florida, Kenneth returned to Santa Cruz and continued building his temple. He left Santa Cruz in 1953 and disappeared without a trace. His brother passed away in Tulare in 1973 but according to extensive research done by Carolyn Swift, local historian and past director of the Capitola Historical Museum, there is no known death certificate for Kenneth and no clues as to where he spent his days after leaving Santa Cruz — until now!
Right after first publishing this piece on February 26, 2014, Mobile Ranger reader, Kelly Odron, unearthed Kenneth’s death certificate. He died February 6, 1960 in Pennsylvania and was apparently residing in his hometown of Clearfield, PA before his death. The creative architect and bricklayer died of pneumonia at the age of 72 and it says his body was “removed to the anatomical board” so we can probably assume he donated his body to science. Very fitting for a man prone to experimental engineering.
However, some mystery still remains. If you look closely at the death certificate it says his date of birth was 1882 which would have made him 78 when he died. Sidewalk Companion lists his date of birth as 1888 which would make him 72 years old — the age recorded on the death certificate. Perhaps it was just a transcription error or maybe it was a fake to hide the true whereabouts of Kenneth Kitchen. You never know with the Kitchens …
From Sub-Stopping Temple to Greek Church
Kenneth’s temple remained unoccupied for many years until the Karim family bought the property in the 1960s or ‘70s and transformed it into a Greek church. It was known to locals as the “Unorthodox Chapel” and it only operated for a few short years. Father Elias Karim moved to Oklahoma in the 1990s and the temple has remained unoccupied for over two decades.
It went on the market (again) in June of 2014 for 2.2 million, and finally sold for 1.6 million in February, 2016. The new owners are Douglas Harr, a partner at tech consulting firm StrataFusion, and artist Artina Morton. They plan to keep the current structure visible and restore the buildings. They may even run tours.
Article updated August 9, 2016
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- The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture by John Chase. The Museum of Art & History. Santa Cruz, California. 2005.Jap Submarine Shells Tanker off Monterey Bay: Tanker Flees to Refuge Here. December 21, 1941.
- Court of the Mysteries; Brothers Build Unusual Old Yoga Temple by Ross Eric Gibson. December 7, 1993.
- ‘Mysteries’ on the Market: Iconic property inspiration for local legends by Jason Hoppin. Santa Cruz Sentinel. June 9, 2014.
- Surreal Estate, by Damon Orion. Good Times. June 10, 2009.
- Secret History: What the Heck is That? A Yogi Temple? Or? by Sandy Lydon. Central Coast Secrets Website. Accessed February 24, 2015.
- Court of Mysteries: A strange house built only at night, with rumored mystic inspiration. Atlas Obscura Website. Accessed February 24, 2015.
- Japanese Submarines Prowl the U.S. Pacific Coastline in 1941 by Donald J. Young. HistoryNet Website. June 12, 2006. (First appeared in World War II magazine in July 1998)
- Abalone History and Future. Marine Science Website. Accessed February 24, 2015.
- Quirky Santa Cruz property sells for $1.6 million by Samantha Clark. Santa Cruz Sentinel. February 27, 2016.