Santa Cruz Mountains town has unique history
Little is left of Holy City these days but legends and lore about the oddball cult whose members pumped gas, preached white supremacy and sold “holy water” to tourists in a hollow off Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
For the first time in decades, though, there are dreams about its future. Holy City is for sale: 140 acres for $11 million.
The three men in their 80s who have owned the land for nearly 40 years, including contractors Leo Pellicciotti and Harry Bellicitti of Saratoga, have put it on the market.
It’s a place commuters to Silicon Valley and beachgoers in Santa Cruz bypass every day, perhaps without even knowing it. The only clue from Highway 17 is a little blue sign with its name in white letters at the Redwood Estates turnoff.
A narrow, winding road lined with overgrown brush leads down a hill a half mile off the highway to all that remains of the once-thriving commune. There is an old, white farmhouse with green shutters once owned by necktie salesman-turned-cult leader, William E. Riker, and an ornate but abandoned single-truck firehouse. A low-slung commercial building houses Tom Stanton’s Holy City Art Glass studio, where he has blown glass ornaments, pumpkins and Holy Roller marbles for 30 years.
Out front there’s a bus stop. Although a bus often passes, Stanton has never seen anyone get on or off.
But that could change. The real estate agent who is listing the land, Jim E. Miller from Remax Valley Properties, envisions the possibilities: a winery, a housing development, a family compound, a religious retreat. The property in unincorporated Santa Clara County includes expanses of flat terrain, creeks, waterfalls, valleys and cliffs.
“We’ve got power, water and roads,” said Miller, who works out of the Meridian Avenue office in San Jose. “We’re only lacking sewer.”
In its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, Holy City was quite the attraction. A roadside billboard, now long gone, once welcomed newcomers with this: “William E. Riker: The only man who can save California from going plum to hell. I hold the solution!”
Riker founded Holy City in 1919 and over the years drew 300 disciples, who turned over their savings and worked for him in exchange for room and board. He ran for governor four times.
“He was kind of a con artist,” Leo Pellicciotti, 84, said. “He just had all these people there working, and they did make a lot of money.”
Riker built up a little village straddling the old Santa Cruz Highway. Then it was the only route between San Jose and Santa Cruz. Some of the wooden facades, including a barber shop, post office, print shop, radio station and zoo, were cartoonish, painted white with murals of angels.
“See us if you’re contemplating marriage, suicide or crime,” said a billboard entering town read.
But Holy City seemed more a roadside attraction than a religious experiment. The front of one shop was lined with 8-foot-tall plastic Santas, year-round.
Riker’s campaign for governor advocated white supremacy.
Over the years, Riker was charged with numerous crimes, including bigamy, fraud, tax evasion, murder and sedition — the last for writing fan mail to Adolf Hitler. He got off each time. He was once defended by famous San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli, whom Riker tried to pay with “a seat in my kingdom in heaven.” Belli got his money.
When Highway 17 was built in 1940, business dropped off and so did Riker’s disciples. By the 1950s a string of suspicious fires destroyed some of Holy City’s main buildings. Riker brought in a partner, a Hollywood music agent, but their relationship soured. Ultimately, in 1968, Pellicciotti and his partners bought Holy City for less than a half million dollars.
As part of the sale, they agreed to let Riker stay in the old farmhouse and the remaining eight residents to stay in cabins on the property for a number of years.
“They were just, I don’t know,” he said struggling for the right word “they were wanderers,” Pellicciotti said of Riker’s followers.
At the same time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, hippies were squatting in some of the abandoned buildings on the property. Within a decade, they were all gone. Riker died at age 96 in 1969.
Members of a motorcycle club ride through now and then and hold meetings there. So does a group of nuns from Los Gatos who stop in and say the rosary. Each month, when Stanton knows they are coming, he picks fresh wildflowers and puts them in vases in the shrine.
He tidies up, too, propping up any prayer cards that were nudged away by deer.
And the new owners tore down nearly all the cabins, making way for what they hoped would be a recreational park, where visitors would pay to enjoy swimming pools, tennis courts and picnic areas. Although the project received a permit, the owners “lost interest,” Pellicciotti said.
“I would like to see it preserved,” he said of the property, “not a bunch of houses or development.” He would like to see it become a park.
Stanton, who has rented the 1960s-era building for his glass blowing business since 1976, says the number of visitors to Holy City dropped off dramatically when the post office closed in 1979, and Santa Clara Valley residents could no longer have their Christmas cards stamped with Holy City postmarks.
Despite the town’s name, no church was ever built in Holy City.
Instead, the only thing holy seems to be a cathedral of towering redwood trees growing in a circle behind Stanton’s shop. The exposed root balls in the sunken grove form a natural shrine, where statues of the Virgin Mary stand.
Members of a motorcycle club ride through now and then, holding meetings there. So does a group of nuns from Los Gatos who stop in and say the rosary. Each month, when Stanton knows they are coming, he picks fresh wildflowers and puts them in vases in the shrine. He tidies up, too, propping up any prayer cards that were nudged away by deer.
To Stanton, Holy City, with all it’s wacky wonder, is still a special place.
“I’m surprised a UFO hasn’t landed here,” he said. “Every possible thing has happened here.”