.Surreal Estate

SurrealEstatecover01Just off Mission Street on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, there’s a sleepy little street by the name of Fair Avenue. Bookended by Farrell’s Donuts on one side and the ocean on the other, it’s a pleasant, if somewhat unremarkable, stretch of asphalt: Not much to see here—just a bunch of houses and the occasional business such as Extra Space Storage or the recently relocated Westside New Leaf.

That is, until you get to 519 Fair, and suddenly you’re face-to-face with a mind-bendingly bizarre building straight out of a Tim Burton film or an H.P. Lovecraft tale.

A mystical-looking triangular plaque emblazoned with cryptic celestial symbols looms at the center of a brick arch guarded by four stately minarets, serving as suitably dramatic fanfare for the unforgettable spectacle that lies beyond: a masterfully built brick temple inlaid with elaborate abalone shell mosaics of five-pointed stars and exotic patterns. Two brick towers of imposing height stand at opposite ends of the palm tree-strewn field in which this baffling structure sits, making the viewer feel all the more as though he’s just stumbled upon the secret lair of Nostradamus, Rasputin or Dr. Strange.

What visionary oddball planted this fascinating visual non-sequitur in the middle of an otherwise innocuous-looking neighborhood, and why? If you were the type who was prone to flights of fantasy, you’d be tempted to imagine that the building is some kind of occult shrine with a supernatural-sounding name like The Court of the Mysteries, built by some half-crazed mystic under the cloak of darkness, and steeped in Eastern spirituality, apocalyptic prophecy and maybe even a little bit of wartime intrigue.

You’d be right.

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Won’t you be my neighbor?

“If you’re constructing a building around some mystical sense, then the architecture here expresses that pretty well,” notes local architect Mark Primack, gesturing toward a chain-like abalone shell pattern lining the front of the 519 Fair building. “For me, if you take the slogan that Bookshop Santa Cruz put forth a few years ago, ‘Keep Santa Cruz Weird,’ this is what made Santa Cruz weird in the first place. It’s a spirit that I think a lot of people say is dead and gone, but I’m happy that this structure is here as a reminder that even in its sleepiest days, Santa Cruz was able to support a certain level of eccentricity.”

To call this temple the manifestation of “a certain level of eccentricity” is to say that Michael Jackson is a tad on the quirky side. “WTF Headquarters” would be a more accurate description of this delightful monument to weirdness, which is known to locals as the Court of the Mysteries. It’s unclear whether this was the builder’s own name for the structure or if it was coined by some imaginative Santa Cruzan after the fact, but in either case, it’s an apt enough moniker: There are so many mysteries surrounding this building that it’s nigh impossible to tell the truth from the folk tales.

Of this we can be sure: The creator of the Court of the Mysteries was every bit as eccentric as you’d expect, and then some. That man was Kenneth Kitchen, alternately known as Claire, Clarke or Clarence. Originally from Five Points, Pennsylvania, Kitchen was a slender fellow with dark brown hair and light brown eyes. He arrived in Santa Cruz in 1923, followed by his brother Raymond (also known as Sylvester) in 1929. Kenneth (born in 1888) was a bricklayer, and Raymond (born in 1894) a stonemason, having supposedly acquired their respective skills in Turkey during World War I. Their work can be seen in houses from the 1930s all over Westside Santa Cruz. In spite of their shared passion for bricklaying, it’s rumored that the brothers fought bitterly: According to many of their neighbors at that time, they were seen fist-fighting in the street on more than one occasion.

“It’s a spirit that I think a lot of people say is dead and gone, but I’m happy that this structure is here as a reminder that even in its sleepiest days, Santa Cruz was able to support a certain level of eccentricity.”
— Mark Primack

In the mid-’30s, Kenneth, then known as Claire, bought the property where the Court of the Mysteries now stands, soon filling the field with a herd of goats. Behind a wooden goat barn, where he is said to have made goat’s milk products, was his Scriptorum: his architectural studio and library, which is reported to have housed a wealth of books on yoga, mysticism and Eastern philosophy.

Not to be outdone by his brother, Raymond purchased a bit of land just up the street from Kenneth and got to work building his own ultra-quirky home: the domed, castle-like structure that still stands at 1211 Fair Avenue (currently being used as a mushroom research lab called Aloha Medicinals Inc.). He is said to have tunneled beneath the structure to create a complex water system. Having frequently been commissioned to build fireplaces for Hollywood personalities, he also drew from prior experience to construct for the building what was then Santa Cruz’s largest fireplace.

Meanwhile, Kenneth began building the brick structures that now comprise the Court of the Mysteries. The prevailing story is that the main building, which is believed to rest above the center of a spoked wheel made of railroad ties that Kitchen buried in the field, was modeled after a Hindu yogi temple. In “The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture,” author John Leighton Chase quotes an unidentified interviewee who knew the Kitchen brothers as stating that Kenneth built the temple at night by the light of the moon and a lantern. This statement has been verified by several of the Kitchens’ former neighbors, many of whom claimed that Raymond, too, built his house by night. There is, however, some dispute over whether the brothers’ practice of bricklaying by moonlight was an extension of their mystical beliefs or simply a means of avoiding building inspectors who might balk at the fact that neither of them had a building permit.


The complications that arise from such conflicting tales are compounded by the fact that most of the people who were around to witness the temple’s construction are now dead. Thankfully, Santa Cruzan radio producer and museum curator Nikki Silva, who co-produces the NPR series Hidden Kitchens with collaborator Davia Nelson, had the opportunity to speak with several of the Kitchen brothers’ neighbors while they were still around to tell the tale. In the early ’80s, after naming themselves the Kitchen Sisters in honor of the eccentric brothers, Silva and Nelson paid a visit to Fair Avenue to get the story from some longtime neighborhood denizens.

“[The yogi temple] was just a very deserted, untended place when we went out there—very mysterious,” Silva recalls. “The whole neighborhood was full of characters. It just seemed like the yogi temple just attracted odd and really colorful neighbors. All the stories were verified and expanded upon by everybody we met.”

One of the characters the Kitchen Sisters met was a memorable fellow named Pat, who lent credence to the notion that the temple was built by night by telling Silva and Nelson that the Kitchen brothers “believed in the light and dark of the moon. You plant that way. And butcher a hog by the dark of the moon, or the bacon will curl in the pan.”

One persistent story the Kitchen Sisters heard throughout their investigation was that Kenneth transported all the stones in the building from Boulder Creek in a new Rolls Royce (or a Packard, depending on which neighbor was doing the narrating). More unusual still was a tale involving the Court of the Mysteries’ entry arch, whose four minarets once bore windows of opaque glass, sending an ethereal glow into the ocean-scented air when lit at night. This “Gate of Prophecy,” as it is known to locals, holds at its center an impressive triangular plaque bearing mysterious-looking astrological symbols. To quote the anonymous interviewee in “The Sidewalk Companion,” “Kenneth believed it was possible for [these symbols] to move. When they lined up over a point on axis with the fireplace it would signal the end of the world, or at least the United States.” This apocalypse signaled by the alignment of the plaque’s glyphs with the temple’s fireplace would supposedly be followed by an Age of Peace.

Inside the temple, there’s an indicator that Kitchen may, in fact, have believed such things: At the top of the fireplace is an empty triangular space that Primack claims once housed another abalone shell-adorned plaque bearing—surprise, surprise—various astrological symbols.

Whether anticipating the apocalypse or simply safeguarding against earthquakes, Kitchen built his temple to be shock-resistant. “The building did great in the earthquake,” Primack notes. “The walls are reinforced masonry—there aren’t too many residential buildings that have reinforced concrete.”


Another bizarre rumor about the Court of the Mysteries involves a device that Kitchen allegedly built to block submarines during World War II. To explore this tale, we need to examine the first brick building that Kitchen erected in the field: a crypt-like pump house sheltering a brick-lined well. That structure was originally surrounded by four lantern-bearing towers, which, according to Primack, were smashed by an intruder with a sledgehammer in early 1997. One neighbor told Silva that the well house “was more like a place for graves—I think he was gonna put his coffin in there.”

According to a rumor widely repeated by Kitchen’s neighbors, submerged in the water of the well was a mechanism that Kitchen believed allowed him to hear German submarines in Monterey Bay in the 1940s. The two obelisks on either side of the Court of Mysteries are said to have functioned as radio towers. Kitchen is believed to have poured water on his mattress in the evenings to keep himself from sleeping and then lain awake, convinced that he could hear submarine communications. One neighbor told Silva that Raymond, being considerably more grounded than his brother, would bring Kenneth food while the latter listened for submarines for weeks on end. Legend has it that the towers could send radio signals as well as receive them, thereby functioning as a device for jamming the signals of enemy submarines in the bay. According to the aforementioned “Sidewalk Companion” interviewee, “Apparently the Navy actually did begin to have some trouble with its submarines and finally shipped Mr. Kitchen off to Pensacola, Florida.” One neighbor also told Silva and Nelson that the government wanted Kitchen’s design for the radio towers, so some of its officials broke into the temple and made off with the plans.

Perhaps Kitchen couldn’t take the heat and got out; perhaps he was forcibly removed; perhaps he simply succumbed to pangs of wanderlust. For one reason or another, he disappeared: In 1953, after a long and rewarding run as a devoted late-night radio listener at the Court of the Mysteries, he vanished mysteriously, never to be seen in Santa Cruz again.

Historian Carolyn Swift, director of the Capitola Historical Museum, has chronicled the Kitchen family’s history exhaustively. She can tell you the names and birth years of Kenneth and Raymond’s grandparents, knows the occupation of their siblings’ spouses and is quick to produce an answer when asked about Raymond’s later years (he left Santa Cruz in 1949 or 1950, ultimately passing away in Tulare in 1973). There’s just one piece of information missing from her files: what became of Kenneth after 1953. Poring over her copious records, she pauses, puzzled. “I’ve got death dates for the rest of the family,” she states. “He just doesn’t show up.”

the kitchens sink

To this day, Kenneth’s ultimate fate remains unknown, and his creation stands unfinished: It seems he had intended to add a second story and a dome to the temple. The mind reels at the thought of what this already arresting building would have looked like at more than twice its present height.
Kitchen’s evacuation of the building left the Court of the Mysteries vacant until the 1960s, at which point a pastor named Father Karim purchased the place and turned it into St. Elias Orthodox Chapel and Shrine, known to locals as the “Unorthodox Chapel.” After having a stroke in the ’90s, Karim relocated to Oklahoma, leaving the place vacant to the present day. A formerly homeless gardener currently tends to the grounds and helps deter gate-crashers, for whom the Court has been a magnet in years past, as the abundant graffiti covering the exterior and interior of the building will attest.
All these years after Kitchen’s disappearance, the rumors continue to fly. Primack tells of a phone call he once received from a local who restores musical instruments. The caller claimed that a young woman once brought him a violin made of redwood for repair. “[Kenneth] was in love with her and hoped to marry her,” Primack states. “According to the story, he built [the yogi temple] so that he could marry and settle down, and he made this redwood violin and gave it to her. She didn’t marry him, so he never finished the house.”
With so many divergent tales about the 519 Fair building in circulation, the true history of the Court remains as mysterious as ever. Silva, for her part, feels that the testimonies of Kitchen’s neighbors that she and Nelson heard were “all based in something. All the stories had a touch of truth to them; there’s something behind all of them. I think they get exaggerated, and people add to them, but I think there was definitely something about hauling the stones around in the back of some really fancy car; I think there was something about World War II and listening to submarines—that comes up so frequently. Look at that place! It’s so odd. How could you build that place if you weren’t a little buggy?”

Primack is equally enthralled with the temple, but for a different reason: He sees it as a symbol of a more carefree time in our town’s history. “I have a tendency, when I look at architecture history, to see it in terms of degrees of self-consciousness,” he notes. “When people are really self-conscious—when property values are soaring—then they’re constrained by that to the point where everything has to be a three-bedroom, two-bath house, and it’s got to be generic, because you’ve got to appeal to the broadest market. When property is stable, people feel comfortable and secure where they are, and they can start expressing themselves and enjoying their homes for themselves. This is the epitome of that, I think.”

Kenneth and Raymond were just two of 11 children of William Kitchen and his second wife, Sarah. A prolific procreator, William had sired 11 other children with his previous wife, Hannah. At least five of Kenneth and Raymond’s siblings are known to have moved to Santa Cruz in the ’20s and ’30s, the first being Hazel and Grover Cleveland Kitchen, both of whom arrived in 1923.

One of the weirdest Kitchen family tales involves Sarah Jane Kitchen, who moved to 108 Emeline Street in Santa Cruz in 1933 with her husband William E. Daglish, a man who was quite possibly stranger than Kenneth and Raymond combined. Daglish, who was notorious for being in trouble with the law, often drove around town in what the local press described as a “sign-flaunting gas chariot”: a car bearing display panels protesting things like gambling halls in Chinatown and a bingo parlor on Pacific Ave.

Daglish and Sarah Jane left Santa Cruz briefly in 1937, only to return the following year after Daglish ran into some legal trouble: Having faced an insanity charge in Riverside, he accused a branch of the Seventh-day Adventist Church of writing falsehoods about him, telling the press, “I was framed, but they didn’t get away with it.”

Following their return, Daglish and Sarah Jane opened a health food store on Water Street, which Daglish covered in signs bearing messages like “PREACH THE GOSPEL AND HEAL THE SICK” and “NO DRUGS-SHOTS-SERUMS ARE PERMITTED IN GOD’S HEALING WORK” A passage from one of these signs read, “I am under arrest now and one who is healed bailed me out. My pure foods are called drugs! My religion is called criminal because I preach the gospel.” The store grew increasingly bizarre in appearance as time passed, almost surpassing the yogi temple in peculiarity. A portion of the building is still intact in the back of what is now Hall’s Surrey House Antiques.

Meanwhile, all was not well with Sarah Jane, who began to suffer from dire health problems. Many people blamed her husband, who apparently had forced her to adhere to a rigid diet that was gradually starving her. Sarah Jane had reportedly sneaked off to her neighbors’ houses for a bit of extra food from time to time. Daglish denied that his wife’s poor health was related to the diet, citing instead an injury she had sustained while being dragged over a church pew as Daglish was engaged in some sort of conflict at a local church meeting.  “There was something cultish about [Daglish’s] health food operation, and the church said, ‘We’d like you to leave,’” local historian Carolyn Swift explains.

Sarah Jane’s health problems eventually spelled her demise in 1940. Newspapers listed her age at death as 58, making Daglish, 42, look like quite the spring chicken by comparison. Mere days after Sarah Jane’s death, Daglish set the national news abuzz by eloping to Reno with a former employee, 22-year-old Marguerite Joan Allardyce—the very day, in fact, that his freshly deceased wife was buried. When Daglish returned from Reno with his new bride, he found himself faced with a police investigation based on accusations that he had poisoned Sarah Jane. Daglish, who had a history of declaring himself a victim of religious persecution (he once leveled this accusation at a Seventh-day Adventist Church that refused him exclusive rights as a soy product supplier), denied claims that he’d dug a grave for his wife a month before her death, stating that this was yet another church frame-up. After Sarah Jane’s body was exhumed from the Felton Cemetery for testing, Daglish barricaded himself in his home during the two-week period when he waited for the toxicologists to produce their results. At one point during the wait, demonstrating his remarkable capacity for recovery from bereavement, he rhetorically asked reporters, “When are they going to get through playing with that cadaver and let us know what they actually find?” Hemorrhagic pancreatitis was ultimately listed as Sarah Jane’s official cause of death. Her headstone at the Felton Cemetery reads, “1940/SARAH JANE DAGLISH/A FAITHFUL REAL 7TH DAY ADVENTIST/ERECTED BY HER LOVING HUSBAND.”

A year later, Daglish’s second wife divorced him for extreme cruelty. Daglish married at least once more before his death in 1952, at which point his cremated remains were deposited in the Felton Cemetery, just a few headstones away from Sarah Jane’s burial spot.

This information comes courtesy of Carolyn Swift and the Capitola Historical Museum.


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