The Utopia at the Top of
La Crescenta Avenue
A Crescenta Valley Ledger newspaper article from January 1945 caught my attention recently – “New Life Center Officially Opens, Public Programs Scheduled Soon.” The article detailed the sale of the former Bissell property to the New Life Foundation.
The Bissell property, which is now the Pinecrest neighborhood at the top of La Crescenta Avenue, has a long and interesting history. One of the very early ranches in the valley, it was above the property developed into La Crescenta by Dr. Benjamin Briggs. It had been owned in the 1880s by John Shields, for which Shields Canyon was named, and then by Col. Samuel Merrill, a high-ranking diplomat and friend to President Benjamin Harrison. He appropriately named the ranch Granite Heights.
In the teens, the property was purchased by Harvey Bissell of the Bissell Vacuum Cleaner family. He renamed the property the “Hi-up Ranch” and built a veritable paradise as his personal playground with groves of trees and gardens, walking paths and stables for his thoroughbred horses.
By the ’40s the property was for sale again, and the article I read detailed its purchase by the New Life Foundation and the group’s plans for the property’s future. The New Life Foundation, as far as my research can tell, was an offshoot of the teachings of one of the many Indian mystics that traveled to Los Angeles in the early 1900s to establish religious centers. This particular one was Avatar Meher Baba, and several of his centers still exist worldwide today.
The New Life Center of La Crescenta was the brainchild of Hollywood screenwriter Alexander Markey. He was quite a character, a member of the Explorer’s Club, a world traveler, chronicler of New Zealand’s Maori culture, and an advocate of the “natural way of life.” He was joined in his plans by an impressive list of thinkers and artists. Some of the names, immediately recognizable in the ’40s but obscure today, were Dr. Fritz Kunkel, a world famous psychologist, author Jean Adriel, educator Dr. Hugh Teetzel, and actors Helen Freeman and Beulah Bondi (who played Jimmy Stewart’s mom in both “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”).
The former Bissell property was described as a “heaven on earth” with lush gardens, interesting and plentiful wildlife, and (most important in CV) its own water supply from a crystal pure spring.
The New Life Center was to be a cultural and humanitarian center but also would be used as a rehabilitation resort for both returning war veterans and underprivileged gifted children. Admittance to the resort was to be based entirely on the individual’s needs, and qualifications were to be determined without economic or class distinction, with all races, religions and nationalities welcome. Several dwellings for guests were planned, and only those with “ideals of unselfish service to man” would be invited to live there. Art studios and craft workshops were planned to be built, small “health farms” would be carved out, and the center would operate its own FM radio station.
Some of the most ambitious plans outlined in the article involved two large theaters to be developed on the property. One, a 500 seat indoor theater, would be built inside the Bissell’s huge former horse barn, and the second would be a 1200 seat outdoor Greek theater. Both theaters would be planned and guided by Hollywood writers, actors and directors for year-round performances of devotional and humanitarian productions.
The article finishes by saying that Dr. Kunkel would be celebrating the purchase of the property by kicking off a series of lectures for the community to be held at the center. The first of the Sunday lectures would be “Character Problems and Their Solutions.”
However this utopian paradise seems to have been a flash-in-the-pan as I see no further mention of the development of the Center. As we know, the property was later developed by Webster Wiley into the beautiful terraced Pinecrest housing development.
Perhaps some of my readers can fill in for us what happened to this never-to-be-realized utopian community…