Louise Speaks: The last time we were in Yuma, Thelma and I had stopped here before when looking for small churches. We weren’t interested at the time so we didn’t pay the $5.00 admission to see the inside. However, when looking for things to do on this RV trip, I started researching what was in the area. Turns out this museum has more to offer than we thought. Although Yuma is in Arizona, this museum is less than 10 miles across the border into California.
Jacques-Andre Istel has officially established the Center of the World here, and he has built a town around it to bolster his claim. 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. Let me explain how this whole thing started. Jacques-Andre saw this barren wasteland of desert 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. He told his wife, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with this bare land, but it has to be entertaining’.” It wasn’t until the 1980s that he finally found an idea that peaked 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 Institute Geographic National of France. Next, he had the town of Felicity incorporated, naming it after his wife, Felicia Lee. According to our guide, it’s the first town in America named for a Chinese lady. Felicity means ‘ happiness, culture. An election was held, and Jacques-Andre became the first, and thus far the 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. You must pay an additional $2.00 to enter the pyramid and to receive the certificate. One by one you place your foot on the dot in the center of the medallion and make your wish. As you do so, the pyramid doors are open facing the church on the hill (to be talked about later). As you face the church, make your wish, your guide records the exact time and hands you your certificate.
The Mayor next decided to build a church for his town but first he needed a hilltop to build it on. Jacques stated he wasn’t particularly religious, 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. The hill has been engineered to earthquake Zone 4 specifications. On January, 2002, on the top of the hill Jacques 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 had it dedicated to St. Felicity. It was dedicated by Protestant and Catholic clergy in 2008.
As if these two attractions isn’t enough, Jacques has decided to add more entertainment. The Center of the World has become “the central point for memories” for Jacques-Andre’s latest, and longest running and most serious project. He calls it The World Commemorative Center at Felicity. What he has done, is that 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. As of 2010: The Museum of History in Granite, now consists of 18 monuments. Once you pay your entrance fee, you are free to walk the grounds and read and explore as long as you wish. These monument walls are every bit of a third of a mile. It was pretty warm today but made for some interesting reading. This would not be enjoyable in the summer as it is in direct sun light, that is why the Center itself is only open from December through March, when the outside temperature won’t kill you. You walk out onto the field of memories to see for yourselves. One long wall recounts the history of French aviation. There’s a United States Marine Corps Korean War Memorial monument, and a series of eight monuments devoted to the History of Humanity. Other walls include The 31 panel History of Arizona, The 31 panel History of California, The 62 panel Wall for the Ages includes the Hall of Fame of Parachuting. The 62 panel History of the United States of America earned a written A+ from a noted Historian. All are completed except the grand 416 panel History of Humanity on eight monuments laid out like a compass rose. Now 31% engraved, completion is scheduled for 2019. The Wall For The Ages is 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.
Other landmarks in Felicity reflect the eclectic tastes of the Istels. A sculpture of God’s arm from Michelangelo’s Dawn of Creation painting in the Sistine Chapel, acts as a sundial and points to the highest spot on the property, the church on the hill. The sundial is precisely accurate and is set once a year at noon on Christmas Day. The arm points to the Church on the Hill at Felicity. The church will remain the highest point in the town of Felicity now and in the future. The 25 ft high section number 12 of the original stairway of the Eiffel Tower is the entrance sculpture at Felicity. In 1983, the government of France removed approximately 500 ft of the original stairway. Built with the technology of the 1860s, the weight of approximately 54,000 lb was causing sway at the top of the then 94-year-old tower. Twenty sections were sold at auction on the tower on 1 December 1983. Most are in museums and a few in private hands. Section 12 was bought at auction in June 1989 by Jacques-Andre. The installation of the 6,600 lb section required engineering and a building permit. It serves no practical purpose, but is part of the spirit of Felicity
There are no billboards for the Center of the World, the restaurant here is only open four hours a day. Jacques-Andre says 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. It does appear as such as the guides and employees are a bit strange. Having to be escorted into the pyramid, you wonder if the doors are going to be slammed shut behind you. All in all it’s a great stop. For $3.00 admission or $5.00 if you want to enter the pyramid, if you are a history buff this is the place for you. Our first idea was to see the church, then when I read about it, I wanted to see that medallion…today I got to see both. What a fun day.