Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"I'm Surprised a UFO Hasn't Landed Here"

holy City
Storied Holy City is for sale

By Jennifer Squires
The Santa Cruz Sentinel

     One of the world's three holy cities is up for grabs.

Holy City, the 150-acre ghost town tucked on the San Jose side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, is for sale, said Jim E. Miller, a RE/MAX agent. The asking price is $11 million.

Gone are the giant Santa Claus statues festooned with weird religious slogans, the peepshow booths and the radio station broadcasting William E. "Father" Riker's racist diatribes. The last of the commune's disciples either died or moved away years ago.

Riker's white clapboard house, the ruins of the zoo and a commercial building that used to be a restaurant, the post office and a barber shop are all that remain of the commune described in news stories as a "sexual Disneyland."

The property is owned by three retired contractors who bought it in 1960 with intentions of developing the land into a park, but never did, Miller said.

"They had the permits to do like a big park, like a recreational park," he said, adding that the contractors built a lot of park benches, then got busy with other projects. "Now they're in their 80s."

Tom Stanton — Holy City's only long-term resident and self-appointed mayor — has run a glass-blowing business in the town's old post office for 30 years. He prefers the title "ambassador of goodwill," as he also shares local lore, gives directions to lost travelers and, for about 15 years, was a volunteer firefighter in the area.

Holy City went on the market Wednesday afternoon. The property, which includes 10 separate parcels, could be divided and resold by the buyer, Miller said. Development of the quiet, wooded mountainside long considered a party spot is possible.

The news surprised Stanton, 55, who lived in Riker's old house in the '70s. Over the years, he has amassed a wall's worth of black-and-white Holy City photos and aged newspaper clippings about the commune.

"There's a specialness to this town," Stanton said.

It's one of three places called "Holy City" in the world — the others are Jerusalem and Mecca — and people still make pilgrimages there. In the '70s, visitors came looking for Stanton's glass pumpkins, Easter eggs and Christmas ornaments. The Dalai Lama came through once and, in February, David Arquette and Courtney Cox stopped in to see about using Riker's house as a set for a horror movie sequel.

"I've had my share of famous people," Stanton said.

Holy City was established in 1919 by Riker, an ex-waiter who billed himself as the "Chief Comforter" and "Wisest Man on Earth."

Born in 1873 in Oakdale, Riker left school after the third grade and worked a series of odd jobs, including selling patent medicine. Around the turn of the century, he announced he'd had a revelation and acquired a silver key that opened his real identity as the Holy Ghost. His philosophy was a strange mix of religion, racial theories and politics.

He started a commune on an 18-acre parcel in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which he proclaimed was the "Headquarters for the World's Perfect Government." Disciples were expected to turn over their belongings, savings and pension checks, and in exchange were given room, board and Salvation Army clothes. There was enough money left over to build the town and buy Riker six Cadillacs.

At its height in the mid-1920s, Riker's commune had about 300 disciples and Holy City boasted a dance hall, an observatory, a bottling plant, a radio station and a zoo on the 180-acre property. Visitors were greeted by music blaring from red loudspeakers while they lined up for the 50 peepshow booths, which had titles such as "The Legs of Queen Elizabeth."

The construction of Highway 17 in 1937 bypassed Riker's kingdom. With no motorists to patronize the peep shows, Holy City began drying up. The next year, Riker launched the first of four campaigns for governor, calling for blacks and Asians to be denied the right to own businesses and to be relegated "to their proper station of serving the white race."

In 1966, at the age of 93, Riker shocked his followers by converting to Catholicism. He died in 1969 in a state hospital.

Many of Holy City's buildings were reduced to rubble by fires in the mid-1950s and Riker lost control of his commune. The town lost its status as a city in 1959 and the post office closed in 1979.

The defunct city, to the east of the rural community of Redwood Estates, hasn't been touched since, but it also didn't fall off the map. The area has been a hot spot for partiers for decades and Stanton said he has seen just about everything during his time in the old commercial building, including burning cars driving up the road, young lovers in the woods, lots of nudity, gunfire-punctuated police chases and, once, a naked woman riding horseback.

Stanton meant to capitalize on his special home and has considered producing glass products such as marbles called "Holy Rollers," cigars dubbed "Holy Smokes" and cows named "Holy Cows," but never did.

"I thought I was going to put in another good 30 years," Stanton said.

Without knowing about the potential sale of Holy City, Stanton put on a three-band party two weeks ago that celebrated 30 years in the defunct commune.

"We've always done some fun stuff out there," he said.

Staff writer Roger Sideman contributed to this report.

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