March 9, 2016

Visit the Kwan Tai Temple in Mendocino, California

Altar at the Kwai Tai Temple in Mendocino, Ca.

The Kwan Tai Temple is dedicated to the Taoist military god of loyalty. Except for the central picture and one lantern, all furnishings are original.

In the Spring 2016 issue of Preservation magazine, writer Freda Moon takes us to the rugged, rural coastline of Mendocino, California, where pioneer history mingles with rustic charm. The Kwan Tai Taoist Temple is a must-see for any visitor interested in the area's layers of multicultural history.

There are nine steps leading up to the front door of the red and green Kwan Tai Temple, meant to confuse any evil spirits trying to enter. Once inside, there are several rituals you need to complete. First, hit the drum. Then, ring the bell on the table in front of the altar three times and light three incense sticks. Bow three times to let Kwan Tai, the Taoist god of loyalty and finance in the heavens, know that you’re seeking him. If you’d like to make a specific wish, burn a few pieces of the silver and gold money paper provided on the altar to make sure that it’s sent up to the heavens, thereby ensuring that your wish will be granted.

The Kwan Tai Temple was originally built for $14 in 1854. Joe Lee, a member of a Chinese family that was one of the first to settle in the northern California town of Mendocino after being drawn in by the then-booming lumber industry, had help in building the temple, but is the only known founder. Today, the tiny structure—only two rooms in total—is both a house of worship and a place for tourists to discover insights into the lives of early Chinese-Americans. An addition was built on the back in 1870 to accommodate a live-in attendant.

The diminutive temple is maintained today by Lorraine Hee-Chorley, a descendant of Joe Lee. It’s the only remaining joss house, or Chinese temple, on the northern California coast, and one of the only remaining temples in California that has been used continuously since its construction.

Incense sticks on the alter of the Kwan Tai Temple in Mendocino, California

Visitors can light incense sticks as part of a prayer ritual to Kwan Tai.

Exterior of the Kwan Tai Temple in Mendocino, Ca.

The temple, which was deteriorating, underwent a restoration from 1999 to 2001.

Restoration work on the temple began in 1999, four years after Hee-Chorley and her sister Loretta Hee McCoard enlisted other community members informing a nonprofit to restore and maintain it. Hee explains that there was no foundational support on the east wall of the temple, and that the wooden posts that were supporting it were not attached to the cement piers underneath. Dry rot plagued the interior floor.

The Hee sisters were successful in securing a $5,000 grant from the National Trust and an $80,000 grant from the California Coastal Resources Agency to fund the temple’s refurbishment. Architect Laura Culberson and her team from San Francisco-based Carey & Co. were able to replace the temple’s foundation, east wall, and floor. They added insulation and repainted the exterior. The finishing touch was a commemorative plaque, distinguishing the structure as a California Historic Landmark.

Upkeep isn’t always easy—the harsh coastal winds do a number on the temple’s vivid paint colors, which require frequent retouching. The boards on the front steps require frequent attention, too. There's no denying, though, that the Kwan Tai Temple is a priceless resource, an important repository of a different side of this coastal town's history.

Visit the temple on weekends from May to October, Saturday from 12-3 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. It is also open by appointment.

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Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.


Applications for the Telling the Full History Preservation Fund grant program are due December 15, 2021.

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