A Herculean Task

By Nicholas Vaughan

G de Purucker's accomplishments as a theosophical teacher are well known and well remembered, but there was another, more mundane side of his administration which occupied a great deal of his time, attention, and energy. This element — "almost as remarkable" as his teaching activities "to those who throughout the years personally witnessed its gradual accomplishment — is that by almost superhuman efforts, along material and organizational lines, he succeeded in freeing the Society from debt, . . ." (The Theosophical Forum, Nov. 1942, p. 486). How did such a financial crisis arise in The Theosophical Society, and how did GdeP manage to surmount it?

GdeP told a reporter in August 1929 that within 24 hours of originally announcing his plans in late July more than $100,000 in contributions were pledged towards carrying them out. He was full of optimism and designs for expanding theosophical activities. But the Stock Market crash in October and the ensuing Great Depression left the Point Loma headquarters deeply in debt because of prior financial obligations. He was thus forced to take

hold of an economic situation that able financiers and attorneys said was absolutely hopeless. He was advised by one of his ablest legal counselors: "Give up the whole thing. Start all over again on a new basis. Nothing can be done with the present set-up." And yet by his foresight, by his hard thinking, and most of all by the complete confidence which his own integrity and ability aroused, as well as by his example of economy and far-sightedness and wisdom, he elicited the full-hearted and generous co-operation of members and friends throughout the world and even of creditors. — The Theosophical Forum, Dec. 1942, p. 573

How did this indebtedness arise? In 1897 Katherine Tingley bought about 330 acres on Point Loma, across the bay from San Diego, then a town of about 17,000. It was beautiful undeveloped property with a 3/4-mile sea frontage. There she built a theosophical center with world-renowned educational institutions. But as the chairman of the Finance Committee, John R. Beaver, explained in the February 15, 1931, Theosophical Forum, "Unlike the generously endowed Institutions the world over, this unique educational undertaking was begun without any capital at all. Its only resources were those possessed by the individual members, most of whom were people of moderate means" (p. 111).

The Society's expenditures almost always exceeded income, and by 1928, when the Point Loma property was assessed at almost 1.5 million dollars, indebtedness approached one million dollars, much of it in the form of negotiable bonds secured against the property. As a result of the reassessment, taxes were increased 400% in 1929. Then came the Crash and the Depression. Land values dropped steeply while the value of the bonds and their annual interest payments held firm. Compounding the problem was the fact that the income of the Society was irregular, depending primarily on member donations and tuition revenues. To meet financial commitments, no new work could be started which involved significant expenses, so that GdeP was not able to expand the theosophical work as he would have wished to: "had I the funds wherewith to do it today, you would see marvels of Theosophical propaganda and growth within even a twelvemonth's time. What cripples me is lack of monetary funds" (The Theosophical Forum, Jan. 15, 1931, p. 91).

Nonetheless, the Executive Committee reported in May 1930 that between July 1929 and April 1930, headquarters obligations were reduced by over half a million dollars through cash payments and cancellations "by the generous action of devoted comrades and friends." Therefore, "the whole Society stands in a better financial position today than it has since the days of the World-War, although there are still other obligations that must be met . . ." (Ibid., May 15, 1930, p. 9).

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International Headquarters, Point Loma, California, 1900-1942

In 1930 there were still hopes to sell all but 33 of the remaining acres (65 had been sold in 1926) to pay off the bonds and create a large reserve fund to finance current expenses and future expansion of theosophical work. But as land values continued very low, it was decided not to sell the property at such a sacrifice. By reducing expenses and increasing income, Beaver reported, the headquarters at that time was placed "on a self-sustaining basis with resources sufficient to meet all current expenses but insufficient to discharge all prior obligations as they accrue" (Ibid., Feb 15, 1931, p. 112). GdeP steadfastly refused to declare bankruptcy, and arrangements were sounded out in order to purchase and retire the outstanding bonds.

GdeP and his staff sought to reduce the heavy expenses of running the Point Loma headquarters as much as possible. In 1929 the headquarters consisted of about 300 staff and students. The buildings were filled to capacity. An announcement in the May 15, 1930, Theosophical Forum stated that "Arrangements should be made by comrades and friends who plan to be in the neighborhood for a day or two or longer, for accommodations in San Diego, as there is only one guest-room at our Headquarters and this is very frequently occupied."

The staff had always consisted of unsalaried volunteers, some of whom were able to contribute financial support to the headquarters from their own resources. A series of austerity measures were introduced which proved effective. Electricity use was cut by 50%; two rather than three meals a day were served the staff; all typing paper was used on both sides for all but official business; and, very importantly, residents who were able to leave the headquarters were encouraged to do so, so that by 1942 there were less than 100 residents.

Adding to the headquarters' financial problems throughout this period was a sharp drop in enrollment in the Point Loma schools for boys and girls. As with many private schools, when the Depression arrived families no longer felt that they could afford the tuition. This money had been an important, steady source of income for the headquarters over the years. To attract pupils, several policies that had been followed for nearly thirty years were changed in late 1929. Traditionally only boarding pupils had been accepted; now non-resident students were welcome as well. To meet the demands of parents, pupils whose parents so wished would be granted holidays at Christmas and during the summer, instead of classes being held continuously all twelve months of the year without any vacations. Non-resident adults and children could also enroll in violin and piano lessons.

In April 1930 the name of the Raja-Yoga School and Academy was changed to the Lomaland School, and the Isis Conservatory, Chorus, and Orchestra became the Lomaland Conservatory of Music. The reason behind this decision was

that the words "Raja-Yoga" have always required a great deal of explanation to people who did not understand them and have left an impression on the minds of the public that under that name we taught some kind of East Indian yogi practices. The name "Lomaland" originated with our beloved Katherine Tingley; it is registered, and cannot be copied; it is more descriptive and more easily understood, and will do away with a great deal of foolish prejudice that many persons, not Theosophists, have against our wonderful institution and educational work. — The Theosophical Forum, May 15, 1930, p. 12

Tuition was greatly reduced as well, due monthly instead of yearly, and summer sessions were offered for adults and children. By 1936 enrollment was growing once again. Eventually the Lomaland School became a girl's boarding school with a coeducational day student program, and then closed in June 1941. Theosophical University, however, continued to accept students until 1950.

As land prices rose, parcels of land were sold, until only about 80 acres remained. After years of economy, Purucker was able to inform the membership in 1942 that

despite the world-wide depression which began in October of the same year [1929], and despite the unrest of the world and the wars which have broken out in later years, at the present time our International Headquarters at Point Loma are almost entirely without debt, we have our land free and clear of any lien or encumbrance, and the very heavy expenses of upkeep, general maintenance, etc., etc., at Headquarters, . . . [have] likewise been reduced to a much more efficient and business-like system, . . . — The Theosophical Forum, March 1942, p. 135

To stay at Point Loma, however, was unrealistic. The United States' entrance into World War II put the headquarters staff in a potentially dangerous position because the property was adjacent to a heavily fortified military installation that might be bombarded from air or sea. Besides that, the pounding of naval gunnery practice just offshore had weakened many of the buildings over the years, threatening to dislodge overhead glass and other fixtures. GdeP told members in March 1942 that

Actually Lomaland is not what it was when dear K. T. [Katherine Tingley] was alive and gave it the inspiration of her genius. Then it was a fit locality for the Heart of the T. S.; but since her passing, and due to a number of converging causes, and particularly during the last eighteen months or two years, circumstances have become so difficult in certain ways as regards dignity and refinement and quiet, that for months past our officials and myself have been very seriously thinking of doing our best to sell our Point Loma property and transferring our Headquarters Work elsewhere. — Ibid., p. 136

As James Long later noted, the Point Loma center "had become an absolutely impractical project to carry on" because "The buildings were of frame, and through the years had become fire traps, and to reconstruct them properly would have cost half a million dollars and more" (Remarks on 1951 European Tour, Cardiff, Wales).

The Society was able to sell the Point Loma property in early 1942 and move the headquarters to more compact facilities near Covina in Los Angeles County. (In 1951 the headquarters moved from Covina to Altadena, near Pasadena, California, and remains there today.) This 41-acre property, formerly a preparatory school, had up-to-date, fireproof, earthquake-resistant structures suitable for the headquarters, university, library and press facilities, and living quarters; a large auditorium holding between five and six hundred people; and four cottages which could be rented to supply extra income. Expenses were less all around; for example, the taxes were only 65% of those on the Point Loma property. And as GdeP remarked:

it is likewise a property which in dignity, refinement, quiet of situation, and proximity to the great metropolitan centers of Los Angeles, Pasadena, and vicinity, is incomparably superior to what Point Loma is or ever has been. . . . indeed in all ways it is a place for every F. T. S. to be proud of as being the International Headquarters. — The Theosophical Forum, March 1942, p. 137
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International Headquarters, Covina, California, 1942-1951

Another important policy decision resulted in the State of California approving on September 16, 1942, the formation of the Theosophical Endowment Corporation as a nonprofit legal entity to manage the financial affairs of The Theosophical Society. This step helped to put the Society on a much stronger financial footing. GdeP died on September 27, 1942, very shortly after the move to Covina, and so was not able to reap the rewards of heading a Society in solid financial shape.

From his books, it is natural to picture GdeP solely as a teacher of esoteric philosophy, divorced from the pressures of the business world. How far this is from the truth! The Theosophical Society owes much to his astuteness, determination, and organizational skills in the face of the financial crisis with which the Society struggled during virtually the entire period of his leadership.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)


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