Religions have inspired some of the great architecture of human history. Reims Cathedral. The Blue Mosque. Angkor Wat. But what about those faiths that aren’t exactly major? Or are controversial? Or aren’t religions at all?
Since many fringe religious groups tend not to mesh well with society, they often take to the country. In the process, they sometimes employ innovative planning strategies, as is the case with Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, or set up in fancy digs, like Heaven’s Gate. Do strange beliefs require strange architecture?
Many people think these are cults. After all, when you have your followers kill themselves en masse, you’re entering cultish territory (no offense).
The largest mass suicide in U.S. history took place at a rented mansion off Camino Del Norte, Rancho Santa Fe, in March 1997. The group rented the 9,200-square-foot mansion, located near 18341 Colina Norte (later changed to Paseo Victoria) in a gated community of upscale homes.
Many of the Heaven’s Gate 38 adherents who were found dead in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion March 26, 1997, had been with the group for most of their adult lives. Their leader was Marshall Applewhite.
They were found with their bags packed. Most were neatly laid out on beds, covered with purple shrouds. They wore running shoes and matching uniforms with “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patches. Each had a $5 bill and quarters in his or her pockets.
The Heaven’s Gate group believed that once free of their earthly bodies, they would be whisked by spaceship to a celestial paradise and a “level beyond human.” They associated the Hale-Bopp comet, which could be seen in the sky that winter, with the spacecraft they awaited. They thought it was traveling behind the comet.
The Heaven’s Gate cult had existed for more than two decades. Its recruiting drives were followed by periods spent in near hiding. In its final years, its message was spread through the Internet.
Heaven’s Gate are basically your prototypical late 20th century UFO cult. They’re most famous for their mass suicide, intended to beam their souls up to a UFO purportedly hiding behind Comet Hale-Bopp.
When they committed suicide, the Heaven’s Gate members dressed in identical black shirts and sweatpants with brand-new Nikes—cultic normcore, you could say. They lived in a giant mansion in ritzy Rancho Santa Fe, which cost some $7,000 a month.
Oddly enough, the group brought down the mansion’s value. Atlas Obscura reports that it was priced for nearly half its worth a little while back. Later, the house was destroyed, a new house was built from scratch and even the street name was changed.
And the oddest coincidence of all was the story of who rented the house to the cult. That would be Sam Koutchesfahani, who bought the home in 1994 for $1.3 million. Koutchesfahani lost the mansion to foreclosure, and was later convicted of (unrelated) fraud and conspiracy.
The Yearning for Zion Ranch
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is a fundamentalist Mormon sect known as one of the largest organizations to openly encourage polygamy. They also are known for their “prophet” and former president, Warren Jeffs, who was convicted of child sexual assault, rape, and incest. Back in 2008, the FLDS were at the center of a media frenzy when their ranch, dubbed the Yearning for Zion Ranch (YFZ), was raided by the Feds. The ranch was home to around 500 people and included a waste treatment house, a 29,000 sq. ft. mansion for Jeffs, a meeting house and large log and concrete homes. In total, about $3 million was spent on buildings. YFZ’s most notable structure was its temple, the footprint of which roughly matches the famous Nauvoo Temple.
Founded by the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, Rajneeshpuram is a great example of how to manipulate legal loopholes to build your commune (if you were looking for one). Basically, some 7,000 Rajneeshees descended on Big Muddy Ranch, a 64,229-acre ranch in Oregon. This enabled them to incorporate and, soon enough, they had all the trappings of a real city: a fire department, police, malls, townhouses, an airstrip, a public bus system, and a sewage reclamation plant. But their creative land use also became their undoing. Neighbors waged a legal battle against the town, which was on land zoned for agriculture. Also things started getting weird in other ways (just your run-of-the-mill poisonings, arson, wiretapping, attempted murder, etc.).
The Mount Carmel Center was a 941-acre ranch just outside of Waco, Texas. In 1935, it was founded as the headquarters of the Davidians, a reform movement of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Flash forward to the 1990’s, and the ranch has been taken over by the Davidian Branch Davidians, a group who split with the rest of Davidians and were following David Koresh. They had taken the land by force, in a wild story that involved the exhumation of a corpse, attempted resurrection, child abuse, and major weapons hoarding. The latter served as the rationale behind a raid by the Feds, later known as the Waco siege, that lasted 51 days. 76 people died, including Koresh, when the facilities went up in flames.
Peoples Temple Agricultural Project
The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was a remote commune in Guyana founded in the 1970’s by the Peoples Temple, a religious organization led by a man named Jim Jones. Yep, it’s Jonestown—site of the famous murder-suicide of 918 people. It’s why we tell each other not to “drink the Kool-Aid”. Long story short, Jones combined elements of Christianity with socialism and attracted a ton of followers, as well as support from very legit academics and political figures. Then he set up the commune in Guyana to escape perceived governmental and journalistic persecution. Then he had all his followers drink a mixture of Valium, chloral hydrate, cyanide, Phenergan, and grape Flavor-Aid.
In terms of infrastructure, the commune mainly comprised multi-person sleeping spaces and failed agricultural initiatives.
Raëlism is another UFO religion, which teaches that life on Earth was created by extraterrestrials who told us they were angels or gods. Raëlians have very liberal views towards sex and sexuality, and are dedicated to world peace, democracy, and cloning. They’re also into swastikas, which they incorporate into the Star of David. Raëlians are trying to set up a $20 million ’embassy’ for the extraterrestrials (the Elohim) in Jerusalem (preferably) with a landing pad for UFO’s. The details for this are very precise, and include an aseptic chamber, a swimming pool, a giant wall surrounded by trees, and state-of-the-art communication systems. While they raise funds, Raëlians sometimes set up a tent version of the embassy (pictured above).
Order of the Solar Temple
The Order of the Solar Temple is a secret society founded by Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret in 1984 in Geneva. Basically, their beliefs are a combination of early Christianity, UFO religion, Freemasonry, and Aleister Crowley stuff. At their height, they had “lodges” in Quebec, Australia, Switzerland, Martinique and other countries. Like some of the other groups listed, the Order of the Solar Temple are best-known for their mass suicides. They also had some crazy, kitsch spaces, which you can check out here (content warning: body bags).
Last, but certainly not least, is the “Source Family”, a commune that lived in an ersatz mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Founded by guru, restaurateur, and musician Father Yod (aka James Edward Baker), the group was funded by the profits of Yod’s vegetarian restaurant on the strip. No mass suicides here (cheers to that!). The only unexpected death was the Father himself, who perished after trying to hang-glide without any experience.
And, of course, there’s the other famous “Family”—the Manson Family—who holed up in Spahn Ranch, an old movie set.
Writer and fake architect, among other feints. Principal at Adjustments Agency. Co-founder of Encyclopedia Inc. Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org