Long Beach, California is known for its beaches and sunny weather. It has one of the world’s largest shipping ports and is a major player in domestic oil production. Douglas Aircraft chose the city to house its largest facility, and Henry Ford built Model A’s here. Astrologers and psychics established temples.
The Psychic Temple became a Long Beach landmark for spiritual learning in 1905. When its founder was run out of town years later, it evolved into the American Hotel. For decades the building seemed to defy progress and barely escaped demolition. Thanks to the work of a passionate few, the hundred year-old building will have the opportunity to last another century.
The Psychic Temple was founded in 1905 by former Baptist preacher Dr. William R. Price. Born in Tennessee in 1863, Price had become known as a demonstrator, hypnotist, lecturer, and mesmerist after his travels around the Southeastern United States.
He preached male continence as a form of contraception and practiced a type of acupressure, in which he healed people by touching certain nerves.
The silver-tongued Price was controversial but convincing, acquiring new followers at each stop. He was also nomadic, fathering five children in five states. Legal issues seemed to follow him, and were the ultimate catalyst for his move west from Atlanta.
“Dr. Price says he can take a woman in his arms with the purest thoughts and can kiss a girl without a thought of evil— so strong is his self-control.”
– Rosella Bates, Price follower
Around the dawn of the twentieth century he made his way to California, initially giving lectures and speeches in San Francisco before settling in Long Beach in 1904. Initially Price was a hit in California.
An early newspaper article recounted his arrival:
“He came to Long Beach one year ago unheralded. Quietly he announced a series of lectures on Psychic philosophy and phenomena. He attracted a few of the curious and those who were diseased. Cures were reported. Classes for instruction were formed and soon he began to attract public attention. When he had gathered a membership of 200 he set about building a temple for his use.”
The following year William Price established the Psychic Temple, a new headquarters for his Society of New and Practical Psychology (also known as the Holy Kiss Society).
Its motto: “Health and happiness for all.”
By all accounts Price operated the Holy Kiss Society as a business. To pay for the new Psychic Temple, followers had to become investors. Members contributed their means toward a stock-holding company, and in return received shares.
Lots were purchased for enlightenment. For non-members, Price charged $10 per lesson. Followers were encouraged to mortgage their homes and also convince friends and family to “invest” in the Society.
Flaws in Price’s plan manifested early, and once again the self-described psychologist found himself in legal trouble. Three years after opening, the Psychic Temple was unable to pay its debts. Price filed suit against his investors (née followers) in 1908 over unpaid items to the Society. Stockholders claimed they were under Price’s spell of “hypnotism and telepathic influence.”
The trial lasted more than two years, and William Price failed to make his case. In the meantime his fortunes had been exhausted in the courtroom. Price was forced to sell the Psychic Temple in 1911 to fund the settlement and legal fees.
The building itself was designed by the same architect responsible for Long Beach’s Masonic Temple, built in 1903 and still standing today. Architect Henry Starbuck used a similar Romanesque Revival style on the Panel Brick Psychic Temple, which features distinctive arches with cast keystones and an upper façade boasting a corbel table.
Questions surround elements of the original appearance and floor plan as a 1930 earthquake damaged much of the city, and permits were rather loose at the time. It is believed the first floor was initially one giant open area with a single set of stairs in the back; a second set of stairs on the far end were added in the 1920s. The building originally had finials along the top parapet, believed to be lost during the earthquake.
To provide light for the basement, glass was embedded in the sidewalks above, reinforced by cold-twisted steel rods. These basement prisms are still there, but barely visible (pictured at left). “You can hardly see the glass,” says Long Beach-based historian Stan Poe.
The building’s main staircase wasn’t grand but it was nice. Above the stairs was a skylight that was painted and lit up the lobby.
Rooms of the upper levels were small, contained no bathrooms, and had just enough space for a single bed. During the days of the Psychic Temple these were likely meditation or prayer rooms; in later years these became the hotel rooms and apartments.
The American Hotel
Anna Sewell purchased the Psychic Temple for $2,910.09 at auction, less than a tenth of its estimated value of $35,000. Sewell’s bid was the only one, and as the largest shareholder in the former Psychic Temple venture, the deal was an easy one.
Sewell did not have immediate plans for the building upon assuming the deed, but she did inherit its $12,000 mortgage. She celebrated by removing Price’s name from the plate glass with acid and chiseling his name off the cornerstone.
Anna Sewell re-opened the building as the American Hotel in 1911, however her limited resources and the building’s poor design for such an application resulted in the building becoming more of a flophouse.
A narrow stairway on the west side of the building led to the entrance of the American Hotel. Once inside, guests were on the building’s second floor, which contained the hotel’s lobby and soaring ceilings, open to the balconies and skylight above.
Early rooms at the American Hotel occupied the second and third floors. They were small and simple, having nothing more than a small corner sink and a rudimentary wooden closet. There was one bathroom per floor, located at the end of the hall.
The first floor contained retail storefronts, which in 1930 included a small stationery and notions shop and a cigar factory. It was once a popular speakeasy and hangout for GIs during World War II. In later years the first floor of the former Psychic Temple would house a barbershop, locksmith, nail salon, and shoe repair business.
Over the years the American Hotel continued to deteriorate. It was never competitive, ill-equipped to serve guests as well as newer hostels and hotels which featured larger rooms with built-in bathrooms. Consequently, the American Hotel found itself typically home to those below the poverty level.
Its history in Long Beach is what seemed to save the former Psychic Temple throughout the 1960s and 70s. In an attempt to preserve the dilapidated building, city officials declared the building a landmark in 1989 (16.52.480).
Meanwhile, the building had become an eyesore as it had slowly been allowed to crumble over the last several decades. The city did not want to demolish it, but it needed a reason and a suitor to save it.
In 1998 the Los Angeles Council of American Youth Hostels proposed to turn the Psychic Temple into an $8-million, 200-bed facility. The concept included using the antiquated building as its regional headquarters, but the plan fell apart when the group was unable to secure financing.
The council collaborated with Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer with experience in building artists’ lofts. However after the developer looked at the building, they chose to not move forward with the idea.
According to Artspace, rehabilitating the building proved too costly to save it. Part of the challenge was updating the building; a preliminary total to make it structurally sound (upgrading the building’s utilities, making it safer from earthquakes, etc) reached $11 million.
Once again the city of Long Beach came to the rescue, purchasing the former Psychic Temple at a tax auction in 1998. Long Beach Development Services (LBDS) Director Amy Bodek believed she got a deal when she purchased the building for $200,000.
In 1998 the hotel was occupied by 23 long-term residents, the majority of whom were on month-to-month plans. The building was worn and barely serviceable. The interiors of the rooms were in fair condition and contained surplus hotel furniture, most of which was still in good condition. The first floor retail spaces were in the worst state of repair and a looming safety hazard; the basement was nigh impassable.
By August of 2000 the American Hotel residents had been vacated, and the former Psychic Hotel building was acquired by the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency (RDA) for $416,000 in tax increment funds.
It was the city’s hope this action would help spur redevelopment of the building. However as downtown Long Beach’s fortunes improved, the city realized it would become too costly for a public-financed renovation.
For the next ten years the RDA attempted to find a development partner for the property. Bodek recalled the turnstile of development proposals: “A youth hostel, a residential loft project that would have rehabilitated the building, another residential project that would have partially demolished the building, an office project that would have saved the historic facade but built a new small creative office space building behind it.”
None of them proceeded – partly due to financing issues – but it didn’t help attract suitors that the building was protected as a landmark and unable to be razed.
It was not until 2010 that a partner would be located to develop the old Psychic Temple.
Both sides discussed the costs and possible reuses for the three-story brick building, including ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces, along with office spaces for creative businesses on the upper two floors. However discussions were tenuous at best, given the budgetary-forced dissolution of the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency in 2011.
To Urbana’s credit, it made improvements to the site and performed interior demolition and façade tile removal – even while the RDA faced its own financial crisis. For their efforts Urbana received a certificate of appropriateness from the city’s cultural heritage commission.
Urbana also produced cost estimates for the building’s restoration and received approval under the California Environmental Quality Act exemption.
But Urbana was merely the developer, not a future occupant. And without the $200,000 promised subsidy from the dissolved RDA, the developer was now assuming one hundred percent of the risk. Another danger was the lack of an ally in city hall; a municipal oversight board regulating former RDA obligations and the California Department of Finance could object to the transfer, putting the entire project in jeopardy.
The deal lacked a tenant partner until 2012, when marketing agency interTrend Communications joined forces with developer JRVD from Urbana to form Temple Creative Realty, LLC.
Under the new partnership, interTrend would work out of the 14,500 square feet of top two floors. The ground level, encompassing nearly 5,000 square feet, would be leased to retail and restaurant businesses.
“Right now, [the building] is a physical manifestation of Long Beach’s changing façade. There’s an element of history and an element of the future.”
– Jan van Dijs, JRVD
In March of 2012 a resolution (File #12-0284) was submitted to the city for a vote. The resolution was to approve a development agreement for the old Psychic Temple building with Temple Creative Realty, LLC. The city approved the resolution in April of 2012.
The Disposition and Development Agreement (DDA) had been approved, but the terms of the agreement were met with enough skepticism to find their way to the oversight committee. One of the speed bumps appeared to be the RDA’s cost basis for the property ($416,000), versus the sale price to Temple Creative for $1.
According to Long Beach Development Services (LBDS) Director Amy Bodek, appraisals in September of 2010 and April of 2012 both indicated the property had a negative land value.
“The amount of dollars that are necessary to renovate the building and bring it up to code renders the entire value of the property, including the land and the building, a negative value of approximately $331,000.”
– Amy Bodek, LBDS Director
Bodek argued if the cost of rehabilitation are considered, Temple Creative would be paying far more than one dollar for the property. The resolution was eventually approved, allowing the rescue and redevelopment of the Psychic Temple to proceed.
According to Richard Lewis, Project Manager for JRVD and the Psychic Temple, when crews began working on the front of the building they uncovered cast-iron columns that had been hidden for years.
“We found that there once was an arch where the new entrance to the second floor will be.”
Unfortunately the first floor retail spaces have been modified so many times over the years, most of the historical elements on the ground floor level have been lost. However this has not deterred JRVD, interTrend, or those who approved the $2 million dollar makeover.
Work began in 2012, starting with a complete seismic retrofit. JRVD removed the alterations made in later years and restored the salvageable original wood-framed windows. Façade elements were restored, and the sidewalk (with its coke bottle glass inserts) was preserved.
Most importantly, JRVD completed a full-frame build out of office space across three floors and the basement.
While JRVD was handling the core and shell of the renovation, interTrend went to work on interior design. One step was to commission artists to add custom touches to the Psychic Temple, such as James Jean, who was brought in to add some woodcarving artistry to the Psychic Temple’s new library.
“We love the history of it and I think in building it and renovating it we want to tell that story as well, whether it be the Psychic Temple or the American Hotel.”
– Julia Huang, CEO of interTrend
While the building is not yet complete, significant progress has been made and the building has been saved.
The former Psychic Temple and American Hotel is currently the second-oldest commercial building in downtown Long Beach, California (just behind the Long Beach Masonic temple, built in 1903).