Nestled in a very unassuming part of Echo Park in Los Angeles sleeps the inspiration for Hollywood’s most popular archeologist, Indiana Jones. In the early 1920s Antonia F. Futterer, a virtually unknown explorer with very little formal education, embarked on an incredible two-year expedition in the Middle East in search of the mythical “Lost Golden Ark of the Covenant.” Futterer returned home to Los Angeles with the spoils of his tomb raiding, where in 1924 he set up a vast storehouse of artifacts from the Holy land that rivals any museum exhibit.
Futterer, who had never visited a doctor in his life, at the age of 26 contracted a terminal illness. He prayed to God asking to be healed, and after making a full recovery claimed that’s what had healed him. Stricken by scripture, he set up a Bible school, devising hundreds of maps and diagrams to teach holy writ. Soon after his pact with God to make this his life’s work, Futterer began his quest to spread the word via his tomb treasure, dubbing his collection Holyland. Shortly after arriving back in LA and setting up his museum/Bible school, he found that he could actually heal people.
On a visit a few days ago, a Christian school bus was parked outside, reminding us of our own school field trip days.An 84-year-old woman named Betty, Holyland’s caretaker, was our guide. She and her daughter are the only members of this ghostly monument to the one-man vision quest.
One of the first things she asked was if we’d like to see Noah's Ark. Our bewildered expressions were nothing new, as she told us people usually don’t know what she means.She pointed with a long, severe stick to a faded picture of a mountaintop in Ararat, Turkey, explaining that this animal rescue vessel would soon be revealed with God’s great earthquake, as God would melt a bunch of ice, revealing the Ark.It is said precious stones illuminated the vessel, ensuring that food remained fresh. Biblical explorers continue to look for remnants of it up there today.
We are all descended from Noah, Betty told us, and there is proof in a Biblical genealogy chart that Antonia F. Futterer made, which is treated as inner doctrine of Futterer’s nondenominational Christian teachings. Lots of other esoteric artifacts he created further confirms this, too.Arainbowin the clouds, "The sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth” was depicted in a geographical map of the Holy lands.
Betty has managed the compound for 34 years, her meditative face an expression of her peaceful await of the Apocalypse. At times a wistful, cryptic smile would brighten her face when she’d speak of the End of Days. She wore a hand-embroidered Bedouin dress and jewelry not unlike the many displays of jewelry accrued from Biblical lands.
The Damascus Room was filled with beautiful antique game tables, stately chairs, fancy writing desks inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, and a massive brass urn for the collection of alms. Down the stairs, Betty showed us an oil lamp that is many millennia old, (estimated guess is 5,000 years), bottles used to collect the tears of loved ones during a funeral then corked and placed in the casket with the dressed loved one, Dead Sea salt water, bottled in the 1920s by Antonia F. Futterer himself, yellowing at the top, and amazingly a large chunk of salt stone thought to be from Lot’s wife, who disobeying God, was frozen into a pillar of salt while fleeing the city of Sodom, still to be seen at the foot of Mount Sodom.“What part of her body do you think it is?” she asks. “I always say it’s the heart.” She explains it was because her heart turned to salt when she disobeyed God.
Every inch of space in the small room was covered with yellowed newspaper clippings of the mysterious explorer or some object found on a dig from Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine, Babylon, and even Eden. The presentation was obviously geared towards the younger aged schoolchild. When asked a question that probed deeper into the life of the fabled explorer, our guide seemed to get misty eyed and would only give a cryptic answer that left us wanting to know more about this mystical archetype for Indiana Jones. She spoke of him as though he were a Saint.
As she spoke to us of fire and brimstone she swatted her stick at a wooden replica of the golden Ark of the Covenantthat stood in front of a beautiful mosaic of glass slides. She asked if we would like to know the contents of the Ark of the Covenant. We nodded in anticipation. Here’s what Betty said was among other sacred objects in there: the Tablets of Stone inscribed with Ten Commandments of “which we have all broken,” she informs; and Aaron’s rod, which will most likely “be sprouting the leaves and fruit of the almond.”
With the flip of a light switch, she illuminated the massive wooden display wall housing the extensive collection of hand-painted colored glass slides assembled by Futterer depicting the whole Bible from Alpha to Omega. The very first slide was so captivating we all wanted to sneak a photograph of it, (unfortunately photos were not allowed). It had a beautifully drawn snake that seemed to be coming from a cloud that had the word SIN written in a nice cursive font. Futterer had also invented a space-age duel slide projector to show these slides, called the “Eye-O-graphic Bible system” that looks like something out of the old Flash Gordon serials.
When she finished up on the slides she killed the light and we were ushered into the back room that housed a mummy case that is supposedly 2000 years old, which she touched and knocked with her fist as she spoke.
Here they had devised a fun dress-up game for the kids, where we all got to dress in traditional Bedouin clothing. A smaller room housed a life-size sculpture of Jesus praying beside a giant rock that used to be inside downtown LA’s Clifton's Cafeteria (Google that and see what you come up with).
After we dressed up and wandered around the cases of exotic jewelry and garb we walked back upstairs into the auditorium that was filled with wooden school desks and a massive reproduction of Futterer’s Bible teaching charts. Betty brought us out little cups of Middle Eastern candy, mishmish (apricot fruit roll up from Damascus), Turkish Delight, and purple Kool-Aid. Yes, we drank the Kool-Aid.
We then sat through a school lesson that seemed to last a bit too long, as Betty continually gave us several coded messages about the coming Apocalypse. The phrase “cremation of the Earth” kept cropping up during the class. The Earth was flooded in the time of Noah with, “What?” she asks us, “Water.” we reply.
So “What will be the next cleansing of the Earth by?”
Apocalyptic Bible lesson successfully crossed off our list of things to do in LA.
Ending in the gift shop, we saw the personal journey of our guide unravel. Betty, she says, is just that--“Betty with no last name.” Betty, the lonely caretaker left Babylon (as she calls the secular world) 35 years ago to find refuge in the oasis of Holyland, situated in the heart of Babylon itself. She seems like the most precious artifact in the whole exhibition, a living relic of Futterer’s vision.
The purpose of this crumbling edifice is its biggest charm: One man’s vision fueled by his conviction that the work he was charged with came from God, giving life to the complex. Since his death, Holyland has changed hands through two generations, and after Betty, her daughter remains as the last caretaker to maintain the intense vision of Futterer, his memory flickering through the compound ready to be excavated by anyone with enough curiosity to dig deeper.
Holyland represents the impact one person can have, the spark that ignites others to build upon the original idea. Los Angeles is filled with various other communities like this, faded relics of divine inspiration. This one is different though, as its function has been augmented in order to survive. It is no longer the mystical school of Biblical Knowledge that it once was. Not quite making it to saint status or creating a church like many of his contemporaries, Futterer’s Holyland stands as an anomaly. There’s no congregation to fill its cozy halls, no members to sit though the lessons. The basement even contained a full printing press where Futterer and his students would self-publish his teachings, and that’s been sold off long ago. His office, incidentally not open to the public, sits as a mausoleum filled with tons of unpublished writings by Futterer, according to Betty, who speaks longingly of her teacher.
She leaves us with one last story of the immortalized explorer. Futterer performed one of his many miracles from his office window, where he spied a decrepit wanderer dependent on a cane to walk. He sent his healing remotely to the old man, who after unknowlingly received the healing, stood up straight, throwing his cane, and ran to catch his bus. Dr. Jones has nothing on the real thing.