About the Halcyon Historic District

The Halcyon Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, having been nominated for inclusion by the California State Office of Historic Preservation in 2017. This nomination concluded several years of effort on the part of Eleanor Shumway, Fifth Guardian in Chief of the Temple of the People, and Karen White, President of the Halcyon Community Association. Shumway and White, with the assistance of Marti Fast, petitioned to include Halcyon in the National Register by creating an extensive application that detailed the historical significance of the town of Halcyon itself, its natural features, and the public buildings and homes constructed throughout the town’s history. This summary is excerpted and adapted from their application. 

The Temple of the People, aerial view

Halcyon was founded in 1903 as a Theosophical community by settlers from New York, led by Francia LaDue, the original Guardian in Chief of the Temple of the People, and by Dr. William H. Dower, who became the second Guardian in Chief in 1922. 

The area designated the Halcyon Historic District is located about one mile east of the Pacific Ocean in San Luis Obispo County, California. Its signature building, the Blue Star Memorial Temple, was designed by noted Southern California architect and Temple member Theodore Eisen and constructed by Temple members in 1923-24. Its glowing white-pillared exterior marks the gateway for the community. 

The Hiawatha Lodge under construction, 1927

Halcyon remains a rural oasis in a rapidly growing urban area. The town covers 130 acres of what was once sage and lupine covered sand hills as well as rich black bottomland, ideal for farming. The early Temple members built small cottages and planted shrubs and trees, slowly transforming the community into a wooded area. Today, groves of trees and open fields block most of the view of nearby urbanization. The residents adhere to philosophical ideals that keep the community in its rural park-like setting despite the pressures of growth. Two expanses of farmland, leased to organic farmers by the Temple, cover bordering areas on the town property, and many open spaces have been allowed to remain in their natural state.

The land originally purchased by Temple members to establish Halcyon consisted of the 200-acre Granville Shinn farm, augmented by a 22-acre home site that contained the Coffee Rice mansion (built in 1886). The mansion, no longer owned by the Temple, still stands in the adjoining town of Oceano. Under Dr. Dower’s leadership, the building was converted into the Halcyon Hotel and Sanatorium and was dedicated to the treatment of tuberculosis and other ailments. Dr. Dower’s tubercular patients were also housed in tents surrounding the Open Gate guest house which still stands near the center of Halcyon.

The Open Gate guest house, surrounded by tents housing Dr. Dower’s patients

Among Halcyon’s modest homes can be found original work by local craftsmen, including handmade exterior doors and unique fireplaces and porches constructed from golden-hued, locally mined Arroyo Grande “tuff rock,” a type of sandstone composed of compacted volcanic ash. Numerous homes show influences of the American Arts and Crafts Movement. The Hiawatha Lodge, built in 1927 of redwood, exemplifies the simple meeting halls of the period, and remains in constant community use. Other key historic buildings include the William Quan Judge Library (1931-32), the Open Gate guesthouse and residence (1906), the University Center (1971), and the Halcyon Store (1908; moved 1947). The William Quan Judge Library houses more than 15,000 books, including an extensive collection of Theosophical titles. The Halcyon Store operated as a branch of the U.S. Post Office for well over 100 years, from 1908 until 2021. 

Original site of the Halcyon Store and Post Office, 1908-1947

Halcyon’s residents contributed to the larger culture in numerous ways. The Irish-born John Varian, an associate of poets and revolutionaries like William Butler Yeats, was a long-time Halcyon resident and a poet, playwright, and inventor. His sons, Russell and Sigurd, were important physicists who invented the klystron tube, a device that contributed the development of modern aircraft navigation and satellite communication. George Russell Harrison, son of a founding officer of the Temple, became a prominent research physicist at MIT; the spectroscopy laboratory there still bears his name. As for literature and the arts, Ella Young, another Irish emigre and friend of the Varians, published volumes of Irish folk tales. Henry Cowell, who had known the Varians in Palo Alto, was a frequent visitor to Halcyon, known for playing his unusual piano compositions in the Temple. Cowell, now widely known as a pioneer in American music, wrote one of his best-known pieces, “The Tides of Manaunaun,” at John Varian’s behest. Halcyon has been home to numerous visual artists, poets, and musicians over the years. The Temple has continuously published its own quarterly journal, The Temple Artisan, since 1900.

Halcyon’s historical significance consists in its being one of the longest-lived cooperative utopian communities in the United States. From the founding of the Temple group in 1898 through its migration to Halcyon in 1903 and onward to the present day, the community that makes up the residents of Halcyon and the membership of the Temple at large has been dedicated to one consistent set of ideals based on Theosophical study and collective harmony.