The Lake Shrine Temple
in Pacific Palisades is a wonderful escape for meditation in the Santa Ynez Canyon. They offer daily meditation classes, women’s yoga, and docent tours of the property.
Many thousands of visitors come each year to enjoy the scenic beauty and serenity of this spiritual sanctuary. The ten-acre site, with its gardens and natural spring-fed lake, is home to a variety of flora and fauna, including swans, ducks, koi, and trees and flowers from around the world.
The grounds include a Court of Religions honoring the five principal religions of the world, the Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial (pictured at the left) where a portion of Gandhi’s ashes is enshrined, a museum with exhibits on Paramahansa Yogananda’s work, and a gift shop with arts and crafts from India. The temple itself is on a hilltop overlooking the lake.
The History of the Lake Shrine Temple:
Lake Santa Ynez
The colorful history of the Lake Shrine began over half a century ago. In the early 1920s, the then-famous Inceville motion-picture studio filmed silent movies on this site in Santa Ynez Canyon. The land was later purchased by Los Angeles real-estate magnate Alphonzo Bell, Sr.; and in 1927, the surrounding hillsides were hydraulically graded to fill the canyon and make it level for future development. However, these earthmoving activities were halted prematurely, leaving a large basin in the portion of the canyon that had not been leveled. This basin quickly filled with water from the many springs in the area, creating Lake Santa Ynez – the only natural spring-fed lake within the city limits of Los Angeles.
The area remained undeveloped for more than a decade. Over the years, reeds and cattails almost completely hid the lake from view. With the exception of the youngsters who delighted in having a private “swimming hole,” most local residents considered it a worthless swamp. One individual, however, saw it in a different light-H. Everett McElroy, assistant superintendent of construction for 20th Century Fox studios, purchased the property in 1940.
Mr. McElroy (affectionately known as “Big Mac” to one and all) was a man of unusual vision and practical ingenuity. “There is no doubt that we were labeled as crazy,” he recalled in later years. “But looking up at the bowl surrounding my mudhole, I could see terraces of trees – all kinds of trees, maybe 500 tropical and otherwise. I could see banks of flowers and shrubs and a path meandering around the lake, with cutaways into the bank for tree ferns and hanging baskets of fuchsias and begonias and mossy green rock plants. I was itching to build rockeries and put in rustic wooden bridges and a giant water wheel that would act in conjunction with a pump as irrigation through a pipe-laid water system over the entire project.”
Wartime shortages of construction materials did not hinder Mr. and Mrs. McElroy from starting to create their unique private paradise. The weeds were cleared away and the lake dredged; and the McElroys transported their double-deck Mississippi-style houseboat, “Adeline,” from Lake Mead by the Hoover Dam to their new home on Lake Santa Ynez.
In subsequent years, McElroy constructed a new residence across the lake from the houseboat. He modeled it after a small mill house, complete with a two-and-a-half ton, fifteen-foot waterwheel that was used to capture the overflow from the lake and send it into an irrigation system. Stained glass windows, Tyrolean carvings, a twisting circular staircase, and a swinging wood-and-rope bridge suspended above the willows and ferns of a small gully contributed to the mill house’s charm. After the mill house was completed, the McElroys made it their new home, renting the houseboat to film stars and others in the movie industry, and on occasion to royalty.
McElroys started their third project on the lake – an authentic reproduction of a 16th-century Dutch windmill. Though the mill was never put to use, its sails are functional and capable of turning in the wind. Then came a boat dock and landing, whose peaked roof, carved figure-heads, and benches added yet another charming touch to the unusual setting.
How the McElroys’ ten-acre park became the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine is a remarkable story. In the late 1940s, Mr. and Mrs. McElroy sold the property to an oil-company president, who moved into the windmill and planned to construct a multi-million dollar resort hotel complex around the lake. Before he could proceed, however, the new owner of the property had a strange experience.
One night the oil company executive awoke around three a.m. after a vivid dream in which he saw his new property as a “Church of All Religions.” He had dreamed that a large group of people was assembled by the lake, and ministers gave inspiring sermons from a podium. He fell asleep again, but again the curious vision awakened him. After this had happened three times, he got out of bed and looked up “Church of All Religions” in the telephone book. The only such listing was for the Self-Realization Fellowship Church of All Religions in Hollywood.
Deeply moved by his unusual experience, he immediately began to write a letter describing his vision and offering to sell the property to Self-Realization Fellowship. His wife woke up, and learning what he was doing, exclaimed, “You’re going to sell our home at three o’clock in the morning?” Unperturbed, he finished the letter and mailed it to Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship.
The Phone Call
Rather than waiting until the letter arrived, the man telephoned Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters later that morning. Coming to the phone, Paramahansa Yogananda said–before the man could introduce himself or explain his purpose—“You have some property for sale, don’t you? When can I see it?”
“But you haven’t received my letter,” the man replied.
“The letter will come tomorrow morning,” the Guru told him. “Can we meet tomorrow afternoon?”
Paramahansaji visited the lake and its grounds the next day and immediately began making plans for the open-air shrine of all religions he wished to establish in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, with the help of several generous benefactors, he was able to acquire the property, and the Lake Shrine was born.
From “temporary headquarters” on the Mississippi houseboat, Yogananda personally directed monks of the Self-Realization Order during the many months of construction and extensive landscaping needed to create the spiritual oasis he envisioned.
During this period he spent many hours in deep prayer and divine communion at the lake, invoking God’s blessings on all who would visit there.