Sister Aimee’s Heavenly Retreat in Lake Elsinore

Having just started this blog, I feel like I’m a little late to the party when it comes to commenting on some of the great historic Hollywood-related homes currently for sale, but I will be trying to catch up in the coming days. There are a lot of them! I thought I’d start with a very special house, the former “retreat” of famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson down in Lake Elsinore. I’ve been fascinated by this house since I first heard about it some years ago, not just for its unique architecture and setting, but also its very unique owner.

Aimee Semple McPherson was quite simply one of the most fascinating people of the Twentieth Century. She may not have been a movie star per se, but she surely had “star quality,” a beautiful and charismatic spellbinder with genuine sex appeal who was a far better actor than some of those who made their living cavorting on the silver sheet. Sister Aimee wrote the playbook for the kind of successful mass marketed evangelism still being followed by the mega preachers of today.

Sister Aimee who claimed she first came to Los Angeles in 1918 by the direct order of God, quickly built her Church of the Foursquare Gospel from tent revival meetings on an empty lot on Washington Boulevard into one of the great mega churches of its day. An uplifting message combined with the kind of theatricality that might have made P.T. Barnum blush was such a hit that by 1922 Sister Aimee was able to build a magnificent new church headquarters dubbed the Angelus Temple @ 1100 Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park. Designed by the talented and eccentric A.F. Leicht, the giant circular white structure, which was sometimes compared to a wedding cake, was at the time of its dedication on New Year’s Day 1923, the largest Class A church structure in the United States with a seating capacity of 5,300. In addition to the main auditorium, there were two Prayer Rooms with capacities of 400-500 each, a well-stocked library, playrooms and nurseries for the children as well as church offices and a fully equipped radio broadcasting studio. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Angelus Temple was its “Miracle Room,” which was given over to the hundreds of discarded crutches, wheelchairs and other paraphernalia of infirmity, discarded by those “cured” by the good sister’s miraculous powers of healing. Included in the church’s design was an adjoining parsonage, which was to serve as the evangelist’s official Los Angeles residence. Sister Aimee, however appears to have had some “unofficial” homes as well including a cottage on Las Tunas Beach in Malibu and another near Santa Monica @ 401 Sycamore Road.

The Parsonage at Angelus Temple

In 1929, after weathering several rough years in the wake of her sensational 1926 “kidnapping” and the ensuing scandal that followed, Sister Aimee must have felt the need for a new retreat away from the all-too-busy and all-too-visible Parsonage. That year she accepted the offer of a free lot in the Country Club Heights tract of Lake Elsinore and began building a home there. Although today one does not immediately think of Lake Elsinore as a haven for celebrities, in the 1920’s it did in fact draw a fair share of the Hollywood crowd who used it as a convenient getaway from the film capital.

Even though the home was at least ostensibly intended as a quiet rest haven for the busy evangelist, she simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use it for good publicity and had it designed by the unknown and unaccredited Edwin Dickman in a highly theatrical style, with onion domes, sweeping outdoor stair cases, arched windows, balconies, parapets and even a minaret thrown in for good measure. And of course, there was the large swimming pool, accessible through three arched French doors that led out from the living room by way of a large covered tile terrace.

The Living Room

A corner of Sister Aimee's art deco bedroom suite.

The interior was, if anything, even more dramatic and elegant than the exterior with beautiful Moorish ceilings and hand-painted floor-to-ceiling murals in the principal rooms. There were five main bedrooms, ample servants quarters and even some secret passageways thrown in for good measure. Sister Aimee’s own bedroom was done in sleek art deco style with its bathroom fitted with sterling silver plumbing, mother of pearl fixtures and hand-painted scenic murals. One particularly unique feature of her bedroom was the cobalt blue glass window that opened up into a garden atrium with lush, exotic plantings and a gurgling tile fountain. Clearly no vow of poverty evidenced here. The finished product was more stage set than actual home and its strong resemblance to a Muslim mosque is an irony not lost on observers either then or today.

Completed just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Sister Aimee’s Moorish fantasy “Castle” became an instant landmark and tourist attraction, visible for miles from its lofty perch on a hillside overlooking the lake, the mountains and surrounding countryside. For much of the next decade she made good use of her castle, retreating to it frequently in between highly public battles with her mother and other church officials, fending off various lawsuits, and navigating her way through a somewhat scandalous third marriage and divorce. In 1938, however, she decided to sell the home and two years later she built a far more modest hideaway on a hilltop site on Micheltorena Street overlooking the Silverlake reservoir.

As for her former castle, the home eventually was converted into institutional use, becoming at times a school and later a rest home. In recent years, Sister Aimee’s Castle fell into disrepair and was even abandoned for a time before it was rescued by Aimee’s own Foursquare Church, who purchased the home and undertook major repair work on the structure.

Today, Sister Aimee’s Castle is ready for a new owner, but I suspect its going to need to be someone as unique and special as the home itself, and someone with $1,245,000 to spare, the current asking price. For details on the castle you can view the Castle’s website here and the Redfin listing here.

This entry was posted in Paradise Elsewhere, Paradise For Sale or Lease and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sister Aimee’s Heavenly Retreat in Lake Elsinore

  1. Jacqueline Vaught says:

    I really love this house.

  2. julie talbott says:

    I saw tips of this on a Elsinore drive-by and had an “What is THAT?” reaction. Cool to see it in depth here.
    Too bad the area fell into a funk and never recovered, was quaint back in the day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s