Official Center of the World
Time to recalibrate yourself. Drive just west of the border between Arizona and southern California, and stop in the Sonoran Desert -- one of the hottest and driest places in the U.S. Step inside the pyramid. Stand on the metal disk.
Jacques-Andre Istel has officially established the Center of the World here, and he has built a town around it to bolster his claim (The Center of the World is also said to be elsewhere, making it easier for those who wish to be centered). He's the mayor. That's his signature on the official certificate you receive for standing at the Center of the World.
Mayor Istel is a gracious, well-mannered man with a vision. Maybe a crazy vision, but a vision nonetheless, steadily becoming reality.
Jacques-Andre saw this barren wasteland while serving as a Marine in the Korean War. He fell in love with it, and, with money made from his successful parachute schools business, bought thousands of acres stretching from I-8 northward to the Chocolate Mountains. "I told my wife, 'I don't know what I'm going to do with this bare land, but it has to be entertaining'," he said. It wasn't until the 1980s that he finally found an idea that piqued his interest, one that has now left a permanent impression on the landscape.
First, Jacques-Andre wrote a children's book which helped convince Imperial County, California, to legally recognize a spot on his property as the official Center of the World (it is also recognized as such by the Institut Geographique National of France). Next, he had the town of Felicity incorporated, naming it after his wife, Felicia Lee. "To our knowledge, it's the first town in America named for a Chinese lady," he said. "'Felicity' means ' happiness, culture'." An election was held, and Jacques-Andre became the first (and thus far only) mayor of Felicity by a unanimous vote of 3 to 0. Mayor Istel told us, in case you were wondering, that a justice of the peace and chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors recognized a vote by the invisible dragon in Istel's book as legal for only once in California history.
The Mayor needed a way to mark his Center. Felicia had the idea: "It's in the desert, why not a pyramid?" Jacques-Andre was delighted, and had a 21-foot-tall, hollow, mirror-lined, pink granite pyramid built over The Spot, which is a dot in the center of a bronze disk set into the pyramid's floor. Placing your toe on the spot is an occasion for ceremony in Felicity, with a town official recording the exact moment on your certificate and ordering you to make an obligatory wish.
Other landmarks in Felicity reflect the eclectic tastes of the Istels. A sculpture of God's arm -- from Michaelangelo's Dawn of Creation painting in the Sistine Chapel -- acts as a sundial; a metal 25-ft. spiral staircase salvaged from the Eiffel Tower stands near the parking lot.
The Mayor next decided to build a church for his town -- but first he needed a hilltop for it. "I'm not particularly religious," he told us, "but if you're going to build a House of God, it's got to be on the highest spot." Jacques-Andre had 150,000 tons of earth trucked in and piled up into what he calls the Hill of Prayer (engineered to earthquake Zone 4 specifications). On top of it he had built what he calls The Church on the Hill at Felicity, which is modeled after one that he likes in Brittany.
With blazing white, windowless walls and an aquamarine door, the church stands out against the otherwise dun-colored landscape. Jacques-Andre may have it dedicated to St. Felicity, "The other St. Felicity, not this one," he says, gesturing toward his wife and quietly chuckling. (It was dedicated by Protestant and Catholic clergy in 2008)
The Center of the World has become "the central point for memories" for Jacques-Andre's latest, longest running and most serious project, The World Commemorative Center at Felicity. On a series of two-inch-thick granite walls -- long, two-sided wedges -- Jacques-Andre is having inscribed everything that he thinks is worth telling future generations. Phase One consists of a hundred monuments stretching over a third of a mile. The Master Plan shows that the walls will eventually form a fish-shaped outline that encloses the Church and extends beyond, with its tail at the Pyramid and its nose way, way out toward the distant hills. [2010: The Museum of History in Granite now consists of 18 monuments]
Jacques-Andre insists that we watch a video that will explain everything. "This town, dedicated to remembrance, fulfills our mission to unveil the planet's highlights of the collective family of humanity," the voice-over tells us. "Preserving memory is the noble concept." Okay, that really didn't help us much, but the video does provide a crash course to newbies who wonder what's going on here....
We walk out onto the field of memories to see for ourselves. One long wall recounts the history of French aviation. You'll learn more about the "primary role" of France in the development of manned flight than you would in an aviation museum in France. There are panels on Franco-military action in WW II and French Vietnam, and photo-realistic depictions etched into the stone of parades at the Arc de Triomphe.
There's a United States Marine Corps Korean War Memorial monument -- Jacques is a Marine Lt. Colonel -- and a series of eight monuments devoted to the History of Humanity. Jacques-Andre tells us with pride that one wall uses a quote from Groucho Marx to explain Aristotle, and that as a result "some very distinguished French philosophers will not speak with me." French speakers might be slightly pleased that on a couple rows of monuments, everything is labeled in French and English -- with French at the top.
You can be part of another wall, named the Wall For The Ages. It's open to anyone who wants to have engraved on it his or her name, or anyone else's, for $300, partly tax-deductible. "The ultimate Who's Who," Jacques-Andre calls it.
The World Commemorative Center is incomplete at the moment, but it's only in Phase One. The video voice-over told us that, "We hope that thousands of walls will be built by our successors." They will have to think before they write, as the walls are engineered to last 4,000 years and become "the one book that survives."
By design, Felicity still has just a couple of residents and the only grass lawn in the area. There are no billboards for the Center of the World, the restaurant here is only open four hours a day, and the Center itself is only open from December through March, when the outside temperature won't kill you.
Jacques-Andre told us that people sometimes see the Church from the interstate, pull off at the brown "Felicity: Center of the World Plaza" sign, and mistakenly think that they've arrived at some kind of cult. But Jacques-Andre said that the visitors who appreciate it "are extremely nice people to have around, and so they make us quite happy." If he is around the grounds, the Mayor will probably greet and quickly charm any visitors.
Jolly spirits seem to be the norm at The Center of the World. Mayor Jacques and his Felicia are no longer young, but they're having too much fun at present to think about retiring from their desert haven, which they intend to pass on to kindred spirits when they eventually exit (possibly to the Center of the Universe).
"Life consists of both the serious and whimsical," Jacques-Andre said.
More information is available at felicityusa.com.