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[graphic text] Mendocino Joss House (Temple of Kwan Tai)

[Photo] Mendocino Joss House
Photograph courtesy of David Look
Located one block north of Main Street on a small rise overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Mendocino Joss House is part of California's Mendocino and Headlands Historic District. The district remains much as it was in earlier times, retaining its rare individuality of architecture and environment. The community was the first of a number of towns that developed as a result of lumber operations along the California coastline. Among the outstanding architectural values that remain in Mendocino is the Joss House. As the last Joss House on the Pacific North Coast, north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, it is a historically and culturally significant building associated with a pioneer Chinese community. While the Chinese built Chinatowns throughout California and Joss Houses (small temples) serviced many of these communities, most were burned, destroyed, or lost to history in some manner. Based upon oral history, which dates the Mendocino Joss House to 1854, this temple may be not only the longest continuously operating temple, but also the oldest "original" Joss House in California.¹

[photo] Parade in front of the Joss House for the recent dedication festivities of the Temple Kwan Tai, October 2001
Photographs courtesy of David Look

The building is representative of an early phase of simple vernacular redwood architecture typical to the coastal area during the early phase of settlement between 1851 and 1870. The Joss House is a balloon frame in ship lap siding, which is painted red and green. The rectangular plan houses a two-room temple. The building has only two doors and three windows. The only exterior decorative elements of the Joss House are the crudely sawn porch brackets that enliven the corner of the porch's shed roof. The cornice is not ornamental, but constructed of a rough cut redwood board, painted green.


[Photo] Mendocino Joss House
Photograph courtesy of David Look
The interior is constructed of smooth finished redwood. Other than some wall hangings the walls are bare. Interior furnishings are sparse and consist of a small prayer table with an altar behind it and several hanging lanterns. Simple wood benches line each wall and a stove sits in one corner of the front room.

While the exterior of the building is of rather modest architectural character, the interior is an invaluable embodiment of ethnic history. Most interior furnishings are said to be original and date from the time of construction. The temple is dedicated to Kwan Dai, the God of War,and a popular deity who lived from A.D. 161 to A.D. 219. It has been owned and used by the Hee family members since 1871. Its recent rehabilitation was celebrated at the dedication of the Temple of Kwan Tai in October 2001.

¹ The oral history that surrounds the Mendocino Joss House is documented in Bruce Levene's Mendocino County Remembered: An Oral History, Mendocino, The Mendocino County Historical Society, 1976, pp. 52, 199.

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