The Curious Architecture of Albert Spalding

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Albert Goodwill Spalding was the great impressario of professional baseball in its early years, a pitcher of unparalleled ability who leveraged his skill on the diamond into the sporting goods empire that still bears his name. He was the power behind the National League, the owner of its Chicago franchise (today’s Cubs), and the man responsible for disseminating the game’s ersatz Genesis story, according to which Civil War hero Abner Doubleday invented the sport in Cooperstown. When it came to wrapping the game in the American flag, there was no owner more skilled than Spalding, who went so far as to take a pair of teams on a world tour in the winter of 1888 with the stated mission to spread the game and the American way clear around the globe. (That trip is the subject of my book, Spalding’s World Tour.) Given this history, you might think Spalding would make his home in a Colonial manse of ample proportion—something traditional, with a white picket fence and plenty of leg room. Think again. In his golden years, Spalding moved from Chicago to San Diego, where he and his second wife helped fashion a compound for proponents of Theosophy, the inscrutable quasi-mystical religion founded by the Russian-born visionary Madame Helena Blavatsky. It seems unlikely Spalding was ever serious about the religious aspects of Theosophy, though he supported its progressive educational ideas, and appears happy to have humored his wife’s interest in it. (Some conspiracy minded historians have noted a Theosophist connection to Doubleday.)

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The house the Spaldings built for themselves (seen at top in 1901) was an oriental fantasy, an octagonal structure with an external spiral staircase, extensive internal carvings, and a crystal on the roof that somehow helped the inhabitants channel their energies. Spalding, for the record, spent most of his time on the private nine-hole golf course he built adjacent to the house, often engaging in Republican politics. After his death, and that of his wife, the entire project lost its chief financial benefactors, and dissolved. The house, however, remains, and today is the administration building for the evangelical Point Loma Nazarene University. They’ve done a lovely job maintaining it, as the photos here illustrate. Whatever one thinks of the school’s teachings, it seems an eminently appropriate adaptation.

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