Step inside the compact Mayan Revival campus of Los Feliz-based Philosophical Research Society, a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument designed by Robert Stacy-Judd in the 1930s, and you might find a bit of solace from the bustle of city life.
Pull open the wooden doors - its panels were hand-carved by film actor and sculptor Stuart Holmes - venture through a terra cotta and seafoam green archway, and enter the spacious two-level library.
Inside, you’ll discover a treasure trove of wisdom dispensed through the ages via books - many of which are now considered quite rare - that are carefully displayed behind cabinet glass and organized into categories like comparative religions and Egyptology.
This isn’t your average library. PRS was founded by and for people seeking knowledge regarding philosophy, spirituality, mythology, mysticism and related subjects. And, for nearly 90 years, it has piqued the intellectual curiosity of its visitors.
PRS executive director Dennis Bartok says, "There were a lot of fascinating esoteric and religious movements that were springing up in the early part of the 20th century, particularly on the West Coast. It seemed to be a magnet for them."
Manly P. Hall was part of that wave. Born in Canada in 1901, at age 18 he moved to Los Angeles, where he made his mark as a student of world religion and philosophy who lectured and wrote extensively on mythology, mysticism and esoteric knowledge.
Hall penned more than 150 books, wrote the original story for the 1938 astrology-noir film When Were You Born, befriended surrealist photographer William Mortensen and actor Bela Lugosi, and amassed a fine collection of rare books and antiques.
In 1934, Hall founded the Philosophical Research Society as an institution dedicated to esoteric subject matter. Hall ran the group until his death in 1990, working out of the office where Bartok now sits day-to-day, surrounded by some of the possessions of the PRS founder, including an exquisite black and gold Japanese wood carving of the Amida Buddha in a niche.
Other pieces from Hall’s collections are distributed throughout the grounds. Some are nearly hidden, like the inlaid tiles in the courtyard near the library that are said to be from Glastonbury Abbey.
A large portrait of Hall hangs in the auditorium lobby — “He had this almost Harry Houdini-like charisma,” remarks Bartok— as well as a well-known photograph of the author taken by his friend Mortensen, and a snapshot of him on set with Lugosi during the filming of Black Friday. "About 15 years later, he officiated Lugosi’s last wedding in the mid ‘50s," Bartok notes.
Hall's first book, The Initiates of the Flame, was published in 1922. In 1928, when he was only 27, Hall wrote what would become his best known book: The Secret Teachings of All Ages, an encyclopedia of esoteric subjects that remains popular more than 90 years after its first publication. Inside the library on the day of my visit, there was a large, later edition of the tome, featuring the illustrations of John Augustus Knapp, open on display. Bartok notes that PRS has a few dozen of the original illustrations within the library’s holdings.
Hall was a prolific writer - in fact, there was once a printing press on site at PRS. Today, that room houses many of Hall’s books. But, despite the many volumes he published, the author is still best known for The Secret Teachings of All Ages. "That is really his greatest hit," says Bartok. It remains a best-seller at the PRS bookstore and, Bartok notes, is the book that often brings people to PRS. "One of the things that we really want to emphasize is that PRS is a place for book lovers, for bibliophiles, for people who love the written and the printed word."
In addition to the library, the PRS bookstore offers books on a diverse range of religions. "PRS does not espouse any religious philosophy," says Bartok. "It basically just encourages people to come with an open mind and discover for themselves, to research, pick up a book, discover what’s inside." There are also zines and tarot decks made by local artists, plus recently released books by authors who have participated in PRS events.
While Hall was known as a writer, teacher and speaker, his greatest legacy may in fact be PRS. He forged an intersection in Los Feliz between LA’s arts, culture and philosophical communities. In the decades since its inception, PRS has attracted lecturers and teachers from Richard Neutra to Alan Watts to Marianne Williamson. Korla Pandit, the pianist often associated with mid-20th century exotica music, played the Hammond organ stationed in the center’s auditorium. Charles Bukowski and Linda Lee Beighle were married by Hall at PRS in 1985.
“It was a meeting place and a nexus for people in Los Angeles and on the West Coast who are interested in mythology, mysticism, esoteric subject matter,” says Bartok. And it still is today - the PRS event calendar is filled with movie screenings, concerts, book presentations, art exhibitions and classes. PRS collaborates with artists and teachers who have been influenced by the same subjects as Hall. Philosophical Research Society continues to be a space where people across disciplines can both study and socialize.
Philosophical Research Society
3910 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles 90027