The Fascinating History of the Massive Pyramid and Granite Monuments in the California Desert | KCET
The Fascinating History of the Massive Pyramid and Granite Monuments in the California Desert
The drive from California to the Arizona border on Interstate 8 can be an uneventful one, until you reach a 21-foot, pink-marble pyramid curiously erected in the Sonoran Desert. If you pay a few bucks to enter the striking structure, you get to stand on a dot on a bronze plaque and make a wish. You are at the “Official Center of the World.” As a docent hands you a numbered certificate documenting your experience, you’ll see that about 75,000 other people have stood on this very same spot.
This whimsical experience is embedded into the fabric of Felicity, California, a 31-year-old unincorporated community in Imperial County, just eight miles west of Yuma, Arizona. Felicity has a collection of eclectic and eccentric art structures, monuments and buildings. Nearby is a section of a rusted staircase that was originally part of the Eiffel Tower, a 3-D replica of Michelangelo's outstretched arm of God from his Sistine Chapel painting that serves as the gnomon of a sundial, and a little blue-and-white chapel perched high above on a man-made hill.
However, some of the most unique installations in this village are the giant, Toblerone-shaped granite monuments covered in etchings of text and images highlighting major moments in history. Jacques-André Istel, the 88-year-old visionary behind Felicity, says the monuments in the outdoor Museum of History in Granite are designed by structural engineers to last 4,000 years and built like “anti-tank obstacles.” There’s even a Rosetta Stone engraved in several languages, from Ancient Egyptian to Latin and Chinese, installed centrally in hope that future generations may be able to decipher history written in English. After all, “who’s going to be able to read English in 3,000 or 4,000 years?” Istel asks, in a French accent.
Just as interesting as these installations are, the story behind how Felicity — once a barren desert land — came to be, seems like something plucked out of a fairytale. And much of it has to do with Istel, a veteran Marine and former parachutist, who has painstakingly spent decades building something out of nothing that is uniquely special and remarkable.
The Center of the World’s Fairytale-Like Beginnings
When Istel bought the 2,800 acres of desert land that would eventually become part of Felicity — the community he named after his wife Felicia Lee — he knew from the start that it was “bare desert with absolutely nothing,” except for an aquifer, he says.
Istel figured he needed a central point for his acreage, and decided upon calling it the “Official Center of the World.” It was an idea that nobody could really argue since the universe is expanding.
Istel’s next goal was getting a law passed recognizing Felicity as the "Center of the World." “My problem was that laws are logical and my concept lacked logic. Answer: find something no one argues about,” he says. With the understanding that nobody disputes the facts in popular children’s stories, like how Little Red Riding Hood wears a scarlet-hued dress, Istel felt the best way to really drive his idea home was to write a fairytale about it. In 1985, he penned and published “Coe: the Good Dragon at the Center of the World,” a children’s book about a dragon who found Earth’s central point in a pyramid in Felicity.
Lee suggested that since they were in the desert and the book had a pyramid, the Center of the World should be situated inside a real pyramid. Istel took his wife seriously and built it.
That same year, Istel managed to convince Imperial County to officially recognize by law that the "Center of the World" is located in Felicity. “It was quite funny because [James Bucher] the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors was a wonderful fellow that I had met, and we liked each other and I told him about the book and asked him if they would pass a law and, after reading the book, he said, ‘We will,’” Istel says. “So, I dressed in a white tie and coattails and was proceeded into a Supervisors’ meeting by three high school trumpeters that I had hired. I presented myself as the Ambassador of the Good Dragon in the book and they passed the law five-to-nothing.”
Istel then successfully convinced the Board of Supervisors to designate Felicity as a legal town the following year. Imperial County added a few thousand acres to Felicity. Today it encompasses 9,000 acres, and Istel and his wife own less than a third of it. For some time, they were the only residents of Felicity, which definitely helped Istel get elected as Mayor in 1986.
When Istel campaigned for Mayor, he ran under the single promise that if elected, he would not declare war on Mexico or Arizona. “I’ve kept my promise,” he says. When Bucher picked up the votes for a count, he found that there were three ballots in a town of only two persons. “I warned him ahead of time [about the ballots] and, as Justice of the Peace, he officially declared by law that for the only time in California history, the ballot of the invisible dragon would count on an election,” Istel says, while laughing. “So, you see? We have great fun at Felicity.”
Now, there are about 20 to 25 people who live in the town. This includes tenants who rent out the couple’s apartments for half to one-year contracts. Some stay for the long run, like a retired California Highway Patrol staff member who has been living there for nearly 13 years now. The Istels also lease out their land to farm cantaloupes since Felicity is sitting on a good aquifer.
A Trailblazer in Skydiving
Istel’s storied life is the stuff movies are made of. If it were to be split into different scenes, it would include flashbacks of him growing up in a distinguished French family, becoming the father of parachuting, and then, inch by inch, building Felicity.
Istel was born in Paris in 1929. His father André Istel was a banker and French diplomat who worked with General Charles de Gaulle, who, years later, would become the President of France. In 1940, when Istel was 11, France fell to Germany in World War II. His father was able to send his wife, children and governess to New York on diplomatic passports.
As a young adult, after graduating from Princeton University, Istel went to work on Wall Street, but disliked that career. To relieve boredom, he started parachuting at air shows on weekends. He credits the Korean War with saving him from banking. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps (he is still in the voluntary reserves), Istel built the unconventional business that would consume the next 26 years of his life.
After the war, Istel organized, trained and captained the first American parachuting team to compete internationally in Moscow in 1956. He then launched skydiving as a sport in the United States, and founded his company Parachutes, Inc. in 1957 with his first employee Lew Sanborn, who later became a skydiving legend.
Parachuting in those days was limited to the military and some barnstormers, and considered dangerous, much in part due to the engineering of the parachutes. “In free-fall, which was later called ‘skydiving,’ when the parachute was deployed, you were jerked up so fast that in some cases you could sustain injuries,” Istel says. “There were some cases of broken necks on the opening.”
Istel believed that if he could solve the problems of the parachute’s opening shock, landing shock and accuracy, then he could make free-falling a sport. In those early years, his company adapted inventions and made their own, managing to create a parachute and techniques that solved the problems.
He then opened the country’s first parachuting school in Orange, Massachusetts in 1959. Istel says his school had an “excellent staff and extraordinary safety record.” He made landings more accurate by latching radios onto his students and having ground instructors direct them down.
Istel gained momentum in the skydiving world, even managing to convince the International Parachuting Commission to hold the World Parachuting Championships in the United States in 1962, even though Americans weren’t taken seriously in the sport then. His company expanded over the years, becoming the country’s largest. He owned 17 airplanes, an airport between Los Angeles and San Diego, and even bought farms surrounding airports so he wouldn’t have to deal with potential lawsuits filed by local residents annoyed by the noisy planes.
His influence in parachuting spread beyond just the sporting aspect of it. According to a Sports Illustrated article from 1962, “When Istel launched the sport in this country, the U.S. Army would not allow its paratroopers to [engage in free-fall parachuting]. Two years later, the Army was paying Istel to show them how to do it.”
It was around this time in Istel’s life that he met Lee, who was a journalist and an adventurer as well; Lee had a pilot’s license, reported on skiing and wrote columns in Sports Illustrated. In 1961, the magazine sent Lee to interview Istel, but he says he “interviewed her back quite seriously.”
The two have been married now for 44 years. Istel says, “My only objection I have to her is that she’s made 44 years go by like 44 minutes. She’s a very interesting and entertaining woman.” (Lee declined to be interviewed for this story.)
After 26 years of building his parachuting empire, Istel left his career, believing he had stayed in the business for too long. “Enough is enough,” Istel says. “And I had bought some desert land and I told my wife we were going to sit in the desert and think of something to do.”
"To Engrave in Granite Highlights of the Collective Memory of Humanity”
There is 910 feet between the pyramid and the Church on the Hill. The space in between is filled with granite monuments, some 100 feet long and arranged symmetrically, all of which are part of the Museum of History in Granite. One section is fanned out like a compass rose and the other positioned in a partway zigzag pattern.
For Istel, this museum is the real central activity in Felicity and his true passion project. There is enough reading material on history engraved on these monuments to keep visitors busy for hours. (Istel meticulously researches the history and writes the text, having his wife help on proofreading.) Walk around the outdoor museum and you’ll find sections of the monuments divided into different categories, with topics covering the history of humanity, the United States, Arizona, California, the Foreign Legion, the U.S. Marine Corps Korean War legacy and the Hall of Fame of Parachuting.
Istel’s efforts haven’t gone unrecognized. The states of New Hampshire and Arizona have nominated the museum as a World Heritage Site. University of California President Janet Napolitano penned a letter to Istel in 2015, writing, “You have created an amazing site with the Museum of History in Granite and have every reason to take pride in it. For my part, I am honored to be included on the panel of notable Arizonians, and I thank you for that.”
Supervisor Ray Castillo of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors has lived in the area for all 69 years of his life. He remembers Felicity as being “nothing but dirt” before Istel and Lee came along. Whenever there are ribbon-cutting ceremonies at Felicity, Castillo fondly recalls that Istel will invite parachutists to come in and land at the events. “I’m just amazed by everything he’s done, all the improvements and the granite [monuments],” Castillo says. “I’ve been out there several times and it would take you several hours to read all the engravings he has out there.”
So far, 491 granite panels are engraved with text and etchings. Istel says they’ve finished engraving 53 percent of the monuments. He plans on completing the two-monument “Animals of the World” — which will consist of present and extinct animals and perhaps a few fictional ones from children's books — within the next year. Then they’ll focus on finishing up the History of Humanity, bringing all their existing monuments to 100 percent completion.
These monuments are made to last. The concrete structures that make up the monuments are reinforced by knitted steel, then covered on the outside with panels of Missouri Red granite. Istel says he hired the best structural engineers in the Southwest, and based on his goal of building monuments that would last for 4,000 years, they came up with the long, triangular design that Istel describes as the shape of Toblerone chocolate bar.
Istel’s first monument “started with just the idea of remembering people we love,” he says. Later in 1997, while watching a TV news report about how thousands of World War II veterans each paid money to build a $2 million monument that never got built, Istel became furious. “I called up a couple of Marine friends of mine and I said, ‘Look, we’re going to build a monument in one year and we’re going to show them what Marines do,’” Istel says.
Within a year, they erected the U.S. Marine Corps Korean War Memorial with the history of the war and engravings of the names of the 4,617 Marines and 107 Navy Corpsmen who died in it. Istel then moved onto other historical monuments, from ones focusing on the history of French aviation to the French Foreign Legion. “Then we thought, ‘We’re getting pretty good at this, so why not do something difficult?’” Istel recalls.
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That’s when the History of Humanity — the eight monuments that are shaped like a compass rose — were built. There is a wide-ranging mix of information on these panels. One panel has an engraving of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”; and another covers the topic of the moon through drawings and the musical notes of a French folk song about the celestial body. The panels tell the history of everything, from the pyramids in Egypt to the Magna Carta.
Involved in all of this is Ron Clamp, the 52-year-old, third-generation master stone carver and owner of Memorial Design. He’s been engraving all of Istel's granite projects since 1998. Clamp’s work is unique as well: He is one of the only 32 members of the Stone Carvers Guild in the country. Clamp has helped edit some of Istel’s writings, finalizes with Istel many of the layouts of Istel’s vision, sets the stencils, and sandblasts the images and words.
Clamp is proud of his business’ reputation that they’ll take on projects that are unusual or outside of the mainstream, like the Museum of History in Granite. What’s been keeping Clamp working with Istel for nearly 20 years is that he respects the man and his projects. “I’ve really developed quite a friendship with Jacques,” Clamp says. “I really respect Jacques. I also love history. I love everything about his projects. From a technical standpoint, it’s one of the less intense ones compared to some of the things we do. It doesn’t have full statuaries or things like that, but the historical significance of it all [is great] ... He finds a way to make history interesting.”
Intuition for Design
From an aerial point of view of Istel’s community, everything is perfectly laid out from north to south, and the geometric layout in an otherwise empty desert feels almost otherworldly. For a man who has created so much out of nothing, it’s surprising that Istel says he knows “absolutely nothing about design.” What Istel does know is he likes what he likes, and enjoys symmetry.
Earlier this year, Emily Carter, Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, wrote Istel a letter praising his designs: “Excellent examples of the joy-filled creativity we aim to foster here.”
The late Wolfgang Lieschke, who was a designer and good friend of Istel’s, helped sketch the initial layout of Felicity, and Istel designed the rest of it as he kept building. Case in point: When Istel decided he wanted to build the Church on the Hill, a chapel that’s occasionally used for remembrance services and weddings (his granddaughter held her ceremony there), he says, “I had no idea how high the hill should be or know where we should put it, so I hired a crane and we moved the crane about and raised it up and down. After about a morning of this, we decided that that was the right height for the hill and the right place.”
He hauled over 150,000 tons of dirt to create the Hill of Prayer. As for the design of the chapel that sits on top of the mesa, that inspiration came years later when the couple came across the La Chapelle Notre-Dame d’Espérance while in Brittany, France. Istel says, “[My wife and I] sought a church design and one day we were driving in France and we saw a small chapel and we both exclaimed at the same time, ‘That’s it!’”
The Future of Felicity
The couple’s latest efforts are geared toward the Maze of Honor™, a maze structure that’s 160,000 square feet of concrete with curved, 6-foot high walls that are 1-foot thick. They recently launched a website for the project, allowing people to purchase their own engraved 12x12-inch black granite panels remembering their loved ones. These panels will be attached to the walls of the Maze of Honor. It’s a part of the Museum of History in Granite, which is also part of the non-profit organization Hall of Fame of Parachuting, Inc., and is something that will “provide financial security for the Museum of History in Granite,” according to its website.
Ron Gray of Evans Custom Concrete was a project manager who worked on the Maze of Honor for four months from start to finish. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. “I thought it was quite unusual. Then again, if you talk to Jacques, [you’ll learn that] he wants to create a story of humanity. We could see what he was doing and we had an appreciation for it.”
Gray, 64, was born and raised in Yuma and has been watching Felicity develop over the last few decades. He has visited the landmarks several times, and usually sees it on his drives from Arizona to California. Gray appreciates what Istel is doing. “Jacques is just a real good person,” Gray says. “He’s just trying to do something out there for the world.”
From Thanksgiving to Easter every year, visitors can pay a few dollars to get a tour of the Istels’ grounds at Felicity, watch a short video about the history of the place and enter the pyramid. The rest of the year, the pyramid is closed, but on an honor system, visitors can drop some money in a donation box and do a self-guided tour. Summers can be brutally hot in Felicity, though, running over 110 degrees at times.
Istel has plans for the future of his life’s work, long after he is gone. He hopes that his wife will keep things going, but acknowledges that she’s not very young either. (When asked about Lee’s age, Istel responds, “Surely you know that there is no such thing as a lady's age.”) In Istel’s will, after his wife is no longer able to look after their land, the Church on the Hill — a nonprofit run by three deacons — will inherit everything. “The whole thing will remain a nonprofit and be run by a very small board,” Istel says. “And I can tell you one of them is a former planning director of the county who’s an architect, one of them manages several hundred million dollars of charity money, and the third one will be appointed by the two.”
Istel is always a few steps ahead, and it almost seems like it’s effortless how he makes his wild dreams become a reality. But it just might be his can-do attitude that’s driving this all forward. “I knew nothing about construction when I started building here and I didn’t know much about history when I started writing history in granite,” he says. “Anyone can learn anything.”
Top image: 3-D replica of Michelangelo's arm of God used as a sundial at Felicity | Brant Barger
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