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STRUCTURES : Serene Precursor to Mayan Audacity of Robert Stacy-Judd : Krotona Institute shows another side of the architect known as an iconoclast and an exponent of the outlandish.


Krotona Hill is a peaceable property, detached from the township of Ojai proper, occupying a sprawling space all its own.

Nestling into the Krotona Institute of Theosophy's library, housing more than 10,000 books mostly on spiritual and metaphysical topics, the visitor peers out of the tall, arched window to the lawn and rose garden out front.

Vistas of the Ojai Valley beckon below. Squirrels scamper on the spacious grounds, where deer and coyote have also been known to roam. Apart from the drone of traffic drifting up from California 33, it's feasible to imagine the hill as a rural retreat. All is right with this world.

But, for architectural observers in the area, a question persists: Can the 70-year-old structures that are the heart of the place really be the work of the same man who flung quasi-Mayan and Art Deco motifs together for such edifices as the First Baptist Church in Ventura?

British-born Robert Stacy-Judd, who died in 1975 at the age of 90, had an odd reputation in the annals of Southern California architecture--somewhere between genius and self-styled iconoclast. The architect's work and legend has recently been revived and re-examined in David Gebhard's new book "Maya Architecture: the Creation of a New Style" (Capra, $30).

What we see in the First Baptist Church, at the corner of Santa Clara and Laurel streets, is one of the more audacious edifices in the county. Built between 1928 and 1932, the church represents the fruits of Stacy-Judd's abiding interest in Mayan architecture and design.

He championed the Maya style, although he saw few of his Mayan-oriented buildings go up, and went on to write archeological volumes on the Maya and Atlantis. These books can be found, aptly, at the Krotona library.

It's hard to believe, in a sense, that, during the same year that Stacy-Judd worked on the Mission-style Krotona Institute, he was devising his attention-grabbing Aztec Hotel in Monrovia. With the Aztec, what had begun in a Pueblo style took a radical turn as Stacy-Judd doused both its exterior and interior in Mayan relief.

National attention, both positive and negative, followed.

In Ojai, it's a different story. What we see in the architect's several buildings at the Krotona Institute of Theosophy--primarily the library and the Esoteric School building--is calm, restrained and respectful of the general lay of the neighborhood.

This wasn't the Krotona's first landing spot. Named after Crotona, a Pythagorean school in Italy, the Krotona Institute of Theosophy was settled in Hollywood in 1912.

As congestion and the Babylonian boom-town mentality of the movie industry grew in the '20s, the Krotona Institute migrated to the more idyllic locale of Ojai in 1924. The 118-acre Krotona property, purchased with funds from Theosophy founder Annie Besant, was originally an almond orchard.

The ongoing legacy of the late religious leader Krishnamurti and, by association, the Krotona Institute, represents an important piece of the cultural puzzle of what has made Ojai Ojai. And the structures comprising the Krotona Institute, especially the cornerstone of the library (open to the public), survive as a graceful home to resident arcana.

The library is a multifaceted structure, finished in pieces in 1924 with additional work by Santa Paula architect Roy C. Wilson. Especially effective are the meeting room, graced by a picture window, and the central library, with its reading room surrounded by overhead balconies.

True to Stacy-Judd's culture-bending tendency--even back in his relatively sedate pre-Mayan period--the library itself isn't quite as staid or stylistically homogeneous as it seems.

First impressions upon entering the library are deceiving. Contrasting with the earthy warmth of the Mission style elements, the lobby, lined by cold marble walls, conveys a curious, tomb-like ambience.

Enigmas lurk here. Once, a fountain, now removed and covered over with an ornate rug, trickled in the center of the room. One arched door leads to nowhere, providing only symmetry with another door across the lobby.

A regular, geometric grid of tiles in the lobby make for a stark contrast with the jagged piecework of the sidewalk outside. The architect has explained the difference as symbolizing the tranquillity of spiritual life versus the chaotic nature of worldly reality.

The building is a composite, run-on affair inviting exploration. Rear-projecting wings flank a courtyard out back, with ascending paths on either side of long, cascading fountains. Flowing water greets the ears and calms the nerves.

Across the road from the library, Stacy-Judd's E.S. (Esoteric School) structure is eerily reminiscent of another well-known Ojai building, albeit of a secular nature: Wallace Neff's original Ojai Country Club. Like Neff's 1928 clubhouse, if with less organic beauty, thickly stuccoed walls sit beneath red-tiled roofs. The composition is deceptively simple.

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