The Architecture Of Jonestown and How It Both Created the Community and Ultimately Destroyed It

(This article is adapted from a paper of the same title which Laura Johnston Kohl presented at the Communal Studies Association Conference in New Harmony, Indiana in October 2010.)

The history of Peoples Temple needs to be at least superficially understood for you to understand how a subtopic like “Architecture” relates to the growth of, and the eventual demise of, Peoples Temple.

Reverend Jim Jones established his church in Indiana, first as “Wings of Deliverance” and finally as “Peoples Temple” in 1956. For the next nine years, Peoples Temple Christian Church continued with regular services and started community outreach. During that time, the members of the Temple lived in their own homes. Even though Jim Jones took his family and some of the top leadership to Brazil for nearly two years, Peoples Temple services continued. The Jones family returned at the end of 1963. Members of Peoples Temple lived close to each other in the greater community.

In 1965, Jim Jones led carloads of people – around 100 – across the country from Indiana to Mendocino County, California. By 1968, the membership had grown to nearly 150, and the Temple had bought property to build a church with a sanctuary and a pool. Although some single members had moved in with some of the families in Peoples Temple, most still lived in single-family homes.

By 1970, there were over 200 members of the group in Ukiah and in Redwood Valley, California. Many more visitors and members began making the two-hour trip up to Redwood Valley from San Francisco. The trend was for more single people and some inner-city children to move into homes of established members in the peaceful setting of Redwood Valley.

Beginning in 1971, Jim Jones traveled around the country with his ministry, and encouraged people from other states to join. In addition, Peoples Temple began regular services in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Later on, Seattle was eliminated from the schedule. The family structure was impacted as people began sharing housing and children moved around to other homes. Individuals joined already-established family units. Children moved to wherever there were mentors who loved them and who could take on supervision. Within Redwood Valley, several families became housing centers for infants and young children while parents worked, or were absent. Instead of the individual housing units sprinkled around the community, there were hubs for much larger groups. Everyone was encouraged to take in other members or share housing with another family unit. The structure of the community was changing, and strong bonds connected members and children across family lines.

Jim Jones also participated in this. He and his wife Marceline had adopted children and they continued to take in and embrace many Temple children. A number of children and adults in Peoples Temple took on the “Jones” name over the years.

In Redwood Valley, single members and couples were now establishing new communal homes. There were several communes of single workers who carried a heavy workload related to various aspects of church business. There were also numerous family care homes that took in members to help with the home care responsibilities.

By 1973 we had over 2,500 members in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Redwood Valley, as Jim became more of a public figure in larger cities. Only 400 members continued living in Redwood Valley, and that number was decreasing as members moved into the cities. The internal structure of the church was changing. In San Francisco, many seniors moved into shared living space to economize and enrich their lifestyles. People could pool their income and have better food and better housing. In Los Angeles, the Temple bought apartments next to the Temple building for seniors and staff. The apartments were convenient and full of members. Many members in all of the cities were excited about the prospect of living interracially in the different communes.

There was a dramatic change in the architectural structure of the Peoples Temple community between 1968 and 1973. In the late 1960s, the organization was much like any other church. People lived conveniently close to the center, but in individual space. By 1973, Peoples Temple members had begun gathering into closer living spaces, and communes. There was growing Temple control over finances, time, and contact with family and friends outside of the Temple family. We often said that we were “in” the world but not “of” it. We distanced ourselves from the outside community. We thought of ourselves as more dedicated to equality and justice than those we met, worked with, or were related to.

In December 1973, the rough plan of moving to Guyana began to take shape. In 1974, the first small group of pioneers went down to begin the project called “The Peoples Temple Agricultural Mission,” more informally known as Jonestown. The work continued non-stop from that point on, with new skilled workers continually joining the first crew.

During this time in the United States, housing was tightening up even more, with members reminding other members about focus, behavior not consistent with being socialists, and saving money for the cause (of Jonestown). We thought of ourselves as one big family with the responsibility of reining in rebellious members, and our definition of “rebellious” was becoming more global. Because we were now living in close proximity, we had more control over behavior, and the consequences for poor choices were more punitive. In our open forums, during our family meetings held once a week, standards of behavior would be discussed and punishments would be meted out. Control from the top was tightening.

Around this time, Jim told one of his top aides, “Keep ‘em poor and keep ‘em tired and they won’t have the energy to plan or leave.” That is a quote I never heard or could have imagined Jim saying. I just learned of it August 2010. But even back then, I knew we were our brothers’ keepers – and self-righteous.

In 1976 in the United States, Jim Jones was still taking his healing ministry around the country, with twelve full buses, seeking more members and donations. The trips took several weeks traveling on crowded buses. These groups of 600 or more were getting acclimated to communal living and travel. The accommodations at the places we stayed on the road were very basic, often just churches with carpeting where we spread out bedding, and shared communal meals. It was training of a sort for what was to come.

The ballooning membership from every part of California was more centralized around the Temple buildings and communal housing units. Even though we lived in big cities, we had limited contact with the people in the surrounding neighborhoods. We maintained superficial relationships but rarely if ever discussed Temple business with anyone outside. Even inside the walls, we rarely discussed any complaints or questions since “whining” and “negativity” were discouraged. The behavior most encouraged was to put our heads down and get to work.

Jim asked me to go to Guyana in early March 1977. When I arrived in Georgetown, there were about 65 people in Georgetown and Jonestown. Both sites had communal housing. Over the next year and a half, another 950 people immigrated to Guyana, bringing the total to over 1000 people, all living communally, by November 1978. The influx of residents into Guyana was unexpectedly rushed, and the earliest settlers lived in a primitive setting. However, work was completed quickly.

By the middle of 1978, there were six or more large dorms close to the center of Jonestown and fifty-three cottages a little walk away. All housing had bunk beds to use space efficiently. The dorms held about 100 seniors each. The cottages held at least fourteen more ambulatory Jonestown residents. The cottages were being built quickly, and we were able to spread out more. In addition to those communal settings, there were cottages for our nursery and young children, and houses for some of the elderly couples.

Jim Jones had his own cottage in Jonestown, away from the central area, not visible to those walking the paths around the community. That was the first time in Peoples Temple that he set himself apart from the rest of us. In Redwood Valley, he had lived simply with his family on the Temple property. In San Francisco, his apartment was in the Temple building and his staff lived there also. In Los Angeles, he stayed close by. He was always under scrutiny by many.

Jim Jones made a huge shift in Jonestown. His behavior and poor health in Jonestown were hidden from the general population. He no longer felt the need to model his teachings. Not only did he physically distance himself from the rest of us, he had an enriched diet and decadent lifestyle that the rest of us didn’t have. He and several of his staff had no rules, had food and drink that the rest of the community didn’t have access to, and became the elite that we had so distained over the years. It was his physical statement that whatever he did, or whatever anyone else might think of it, he was totally in charge.

Other than Jim and his staff – and Marceline with her air conditioner – everyone else in Jonestown was communal. There was only one kitchen in Jonestown, where the freshly picked produce was dropped off, where the purchased supplies from Georgetown were stored, and where everything was cleaned and cooked. We ate all meals in the common dining hall; we met several nights a week for a program, a language class, a movie, or a community meeting. Otherwise, we would work on projects in the evening. We had our laundry done in a communal laundry area, showered in communal showers, and relaxed in the communal tents around the property. We even had communal toilets – outhouses with six or more holes in the bench. It was a thriving, growing community with all energy focused on making a viable, sustainable community in the middle of the rain forest.

Jim and his privileged group aside, the rest of us worked hard and watched Jonestown develop into a nearly self-sufficient village with great potential. We had all learned our lessons for communal living well. We knew to work hard, complain not, integrate always, and worship Jim and give him full credit for what we saw growing in front of us. Other than the worship of Jim, I follow the other tenets to this day. In spite of the restrictive atmosphere, most of us did love to see the growth of our own Utopia. We took pride in our successes and tried to make the best of whatever happened. There was a sense of peace in the community that things were coming together.

Jim was withdrawing from his role as a moral leader, and even if we didn’t acknowledge it, our actions – especially viewed in retrospect – told us we understood it. We had absorbed a lifestyle of taking responsibility, and we didn’t look to Jim as much. We were becoming self-motivated and strong. We weren’t looking to Jim as much for leadership, but neither were we noticing his changes and inconsistent behavior.

We residents were kept under a microscope. Everything was monitored. The work we did was supervised, but – increasingly – so were the stimuli reaching us. One example of that was the loudspeaker system. We had two generators, which provided electricity to most of the buildings, and we set up speakers all around the community. Jim would listen to world news on his own radio or on the ham radio set up, and then reinterpret it through his own paranoia and slant, and record his “news update.” He would then play the tape over and over throughout the community during waking hours. A longstanding rule was to stop conversation when Jim was speaking. This was expanded to include all the times that these tapes were played. Many people were really agitated by this bombardment of noise all day long, with the resulting limitation on any conversation between co-workers. I was fortunate to work out of the community in the fields and gardens where the speakers didn’t reach.

The control was complete. Only Jim and a few “trusted” workers had any outside communication or contact. Jim shunned any intervention or feedback from any source. No one challenged him and although his control was less obvious, he pulled the strings and manipulated the community completely.

The isolation of that communal life, in the middle of the rain forest twenty-four hours by boat from Georgetown, was not the main reason for our downfall. At the end, our leader was paranoid and egotistical. A few of his secretaries and sexual partners were compromised and added to his delusions and drug addiction. They got him the drugs he craved, and allowed a separate lifestyle to engulf all of them. No one was strong enough to take Jim on in his chosen setting. No one was interested in giving up the intimate relations with a “charismatic leader,” and eventually the closest two were corrupted. But the basic problem was that Jim had become increasingly out of touch from the membership.

At the end of October 1978, I went into Georgetown to relieve another “procurer” and stayed for the next three weeks. In early November 1978, the basketball team went into Georgetown, Guyana to participate in a basketball championship.

On November 15, 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan party arrived in Guyana, with media representatives, and the Concerned Relatives. They came to the Peoples Temple house in Lamaha Gardens while they were in Georgetown and waiting to fly into Jonestown. About fifty Temple members were staying in the house at that time.

On November 17, 1978, Ryan and his group flew to Port Kaituma, and, after final negotiations with the Jonestown leadership, were allowed into the community.

On the morning of November 18, members of Ryan’s group received requests from some twenty-five residents who wanted to leave with the congressman. After a torrential rainstorm, and an attack on Ryan in Jonestown, Ryan and his group left for the Port Kaituma airstrip with about 16 disaffected members. They were awaiting an additional plane from Georgetown, when a truck carrying Jonestown residents arrived at the airstrip and began shooting. Congressman Ryan and four others were killed, and a number of others were injured.

Back in Jonestown, more than 900 residents gathered in the central pavilion, where Jones told them what had happened and exhorted them to drink a cyanide-laced fruit punch. By the end of the day, 918 Americans in Guyana were dead, including the five on the airstrip, and – acting upon orders from Jonestown – a mother who killed herself and her three children in the Temple’s residence in Georgetown. There were only 87 survivors, the majority of whom were outside of Jonestown, mainly people – like me – who were in Georgetown. Only seven people who awoke in Jonestown that morning survived the deaths.

The simplest way to visually grasp the effect of architecture on Peoples Temple is to think of a funnel. The earliest stages of development, from about 1956 until 1970, are seen as the wide top of a funnel. The members were within a greater community. From 1971 on, however, housing was significantly consolidated each year. By the end, in November 1978, 1,000 people lived in a remote and isolated community where all communication with the outside world was monitored.

Everything was communal in the purest form for those members, and in fact, most of the residents loved the lifestyle. The same isolation that allowed for this community to develop and blossom also allowed Jim Jones’ insanity to run rampant. The membership, now held in the constriction at the bottom of the funnel, had nowhere to turn to seek help, or to even be aware of issues. Jim had blocked every outlet, corrupted those close to him, and then conspired with them to plan and carry out his mission to destroy Jonestown. Those of us working hard around the development were not apprised of any of Jim’s more abusive behavior. In fact, many of the secrets have only surfaced in the last few years.

Communalism flourished only to be misused, misdirected, and ultimately destroyed by an insane leader. In the end, the survival of the community was dependent on the one person who had inspired the members to break from their pasts and take a chance. Too much power was put in Jim’s hands.

It is impossible to speculate from here what the future might have held. What if there had been a board which actively oversaw what was going on in Peoples Temple? What if someone had kicked over the vat of poison? What if an alternative group of leaders had emerged in Jonestown and taken control? What if power hadn’t corrupted Jim Jones and some of those closest to him? What if the government of Guyana had taken pending lawsuits against Jim more seriously? What if the basketball team had been in Jonestown and had stopped Jim in his plans, as the young men on the team say they would have done?

We can’t know what would have happened. We only know what did happen – that power corrupted Jim absolutely.

That has significant meaning for other communal efforts. Early on, a movement or group must have a leadership transition plan in place. In many communities, the smooth transition – or lack of one – from one leader to the next has determined the continuity of the organization. There is a “cult of personality,” which we call “charisma” in Jim Jones’ case, which affects groups and their transitions. Often this interferes with the acknowledged practice. Jim had a vision and painted it for all of us. He never voiced any intention of sharing his legacy or his infamy. Whenever he devised his plan, possibly early on in the life of this group, he had made no transition plan. Or failure as members was that we never insisted on one.

When the architectural design of a communal effort depends on one person’s infallibility, the whole movement is at risk. The demise of Jonestown occurred primarily because Jim set his community up away from questioning eyes, and then carefully controlled what went on there. The isolation that allowed us such a purity of communalism also robbed us of our perspective of the world at large. And, with a paranoid leader, and with – for the most part – oblivious workers and idealists in an inaccessible spot, our options were limited to the ones he allowed us.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)