The Lamasery

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Drawing by William Quan Judge

The "Lamasery" was the residence of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott situated at 302 West 47th Street in New York. From June 1876 till December 1878 (when the Founders moved to India) it became the unofficial headquarters of the newly formed Theosophical Society.

Descriptions of the place make it seem as if a kind of Oriental and Asian Wonderland had temporarily set up shop in one New York’s roughest neighbourhoods, hence the name. Although outside, the streets were more than likely reminiscent of the film The Gangs of New York, within it’s doors, ‘the Lamasery’ appears to have lived up to its reputation. Along with the many phenomena – astral bells, mystic scents, thought transference – that occurred within its inner sanctum, the Lamasery boasted a décor unique for it’s time and place – and perhaps for any other. Among the Eastern objet d’art and Oriental furnishings that cluttered the atmospheric flat, was Blavatsky’s famous stuffed baboon, whom she dressed in academic garb and arranged holding a mass of lecture notes, in honour, he said, of Darwin’s devotees.[1]
The Lamasery viewed in 1966. Photo by A. Merrell Powers.
The Lamasery, as of August 10, 2013

The Hartford Daily Times from Connecticut published an article (December 2, 1878, p. 1) that briefly described the "Lamasery":

We had a chance to observe the walls and furniture of this New York Lamasery. Directly in the centre stood a stuffed ape, with a white "dickey" and necktie around his throat, manuscript in paw, and spectacles on nose. Could it be a mute satire on the clergy? Over the door was the stuffed head of a lioness, with open jaws and threatening aspect; the eyes glaring with an almost natural ferocity. A god in gold occupied the centre of the mantle-piece; Chinese and Japanese cabinets, fans, pipes, implements and rugs, low divans and couches, a large desk, a mechanical bird who sang as mechanically, albums, scrap-books, and the inevitable cigarette holders, papers and ash-pots, made the loose rich robe in which madame was appareled seem in perfect harmony with her surroundings.[2]

A reporter of the New York Star published on December 8, 1878, the following description:

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things in all the collection of unique prizes is one, which has no claim to be considered magical. It is a mural ornament, so elaborately beautiful and yet so simple, that it seems strange that it is not fashionable. On one of the walls of the dining room of the now famous flat is the representation of a tropical scene, in which appear an elephant, a tiger, a huge serpent, a fallen tree, monkeys, birds and butterflies, and two or three sheets of water. It is neither painted nor drawn, but the design was first cut out in paper and then autumn leaves of various hues were pasted on, while the water was represented by small pieces of broken mirror. The effect is remarkably beautiful, but the winner of the prize will probably need magical art to remove it in good condition, for it has been in its place so long that the leaves are dry and brittle.[3]

Residences before The Lamasery

Before moving to The Lamasery, the Founders lived in several other New York locations:

  • 433 W. 34th Street - HPB on the First floor and Col. Olcott on the second
  • 124 E. 16th Street - according to a letter dated October 27, 1874
  • 23 or 236 Irving Place - according to a letter dated November 10, 1874
  • 222 Madison Street - room on second floor - 1873 - tenement house was new at that time

1934 account of the building

IN 1934, G. C. Huckaby visited the building and wrote this account:

The house faces east on 8th Avenue and the exposed side is to the north. The framing for shelter as shown in the cut [a 1933 photograph] has long since been removed and the walls have been painted a light red with small white markings to imitate the original mortar joints between the bricks. Large openings have been made in the walls near the street level and glass show windows have been installed from the corner on 8th Avenue clear back to the entrance leading upstairs...

The entrance at the back is 302 West 47th Street, and I suppose it is the same as when H.P.B., Colonel Olcott and the many distinguished visitors used to pass through it and up the stairs. The stairs are evidently the same. Upstairs the corridor walls are in the same position, but inside the apartment, or flat, great changes have taken place. I was told by an attendant, who remains on the premises to let out rooms, that about six years ago the house was converted into a cheap rooming house. He said that each flat had originally four rooms but that these have been subdivided into eight small rooms. The attendant was able to trace for me the outline of the original partitions so that I could get a fairly accurate idea how the flat looked when H.P.B. occupied it. Her writing room was on the front and included the front windows and the first side window on 47th Street. This part of the house has an offset of about two feet extending out from the main wall and a similar offset is shown at the back where the entrance is. Between the front room and the room immediately behind it there were originally two sliding doors, the opening for these can still be traced in the present walls. Just behind this second room was what I take to be the dining-room, and behind it was the kitchen which is now a small bedroom but its original purpose can still be easily recognized.

As I looked over the rooms I thought perhaps there was possibly nothing in any of them the same as when H.P.B. went about in them, unless it might be the fireplace in the front room ; pipes for steam heat have been run throughout the building but her fireplace has not been disturbed. It is a plain old-fashioned fireplace, so common in England, with a heavy grate for burning coal, and I am sure it is just as it was when H.P.B. used to sit and muse before it—if she ever mused. The fireplace was the only thing left that seemed to vibrate her presence, and if it had the power of speech, or I had had the gift of clairvoyance, I think I might have salvaged many choice stories which that fireplace could tell but which have never been told. At any rate I was thus deeply impressed.[4]

Notes

  1. The Lamasery at Watkins Books' Map
  2. The Lamasery at New York at The Blavatsky Archives
  3. Character Sketch of Madame Blavatsky by Henry Steel Olcott
  4. G. C. Huckaby, "The Lamasery," The Theosophist 60.10 (July 1934), 469-470.

Online resources

Articles

  • HPB at the Lamasery by H.S. Olcott
  • "The Lamasery at New York." Hartford Daily Times (Connecticut), December 2, 1878, p. 1. Available at Blavatsky Archives.
  • "Silence in the Lamasery." The Sun (New York), December 19, 1878, p. 1. Available at Blavatsky Archives.
  • "Madame Blavatsky’s Lamasery" blog entry. Adventures Beyond the Body. Soul Sailors Society. February 20, 2010. Fiction available at blog.
  • "Madame Blavatsky’s Lamasery – II" blog entry. Adventures Beyond the Body. Soul Sailors Society. February 21, 2010. Fiction available at blog.