By CARL E. FEATHER - firstname.lastname@example.org
It rises 38 feet above the Mojave Desert, an “acoustically perfect tabernacle and energy machine sited on a powerful geomagnetic vortex.”
Dubbed The Integratron, the structure borrows from the design of Moses’ Tabernacle with input from the writings of Nikola Tesla and extraterrestrials. It was built from 1954 to 1978 by Ashtabula County native George Van Tassel, who claimed that he was building a human rejuvenation machine. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to test that claim, Van Tassel died suddenly shortly before completing The Integratron.
The schematics went to the grave with Van Tassel; in the months following his death, the equipment inside was striped out.
The shell is all that stands, but that is enough to stir the imagination and serve as a monument to one of Ashtabula County’s most interesting, if not eccentric, inventive spirits.
Born March 12, 1910, in Jefferson, Van Tassel spent his childhood and much of his youth in Ashtabula County. He had three brothers: Bob, Eugene and Jack. Their father, Paul, died while George was a child; their mother, Myrtle, married Frank Hartwell and they had two children: Raymond Hartwell and Margaret Hartwell Manyo.
Frank Hartwell was an insurance man the family did well under his care. They lived at 350 West Ave., Ashtabula. In 1996, Raymond Hartwell was interviewed for a newspaper story, and he recalled his half-brother, George, as “the family thinker” who would read for hours and curl his finger through his hair. In a 1998 newspaper story interview, his half-sister recalled him as a “very, very smart” boy.
“George was, from the time he was a kid, always inventing things,” Manyo said in 1998. “He made a roller coaster from the top of the barn and a bob sled.”
Van Tassel had a special fascination with aircraft, which led him to obtain a pilot’s license while still a teenager. He dropped out of school after 10th grade and took a job at Cleveland Municipal Airport. He stayed in northeast Ohio until the Depression, when left for California.
His uncle, Glen Paine, owned a garage in Santa Monica, and Van Tassel went to work for him. It was there he met Frank Critzer, a German immigrant who was trying to make a living as a prospector. Van Tassel and Paine befriended Critzer by repairing his car and investing $30,000 and filling his car with canned goods. Critzer promised to cut them in on any mining claims that he filed.
A year passed, and Critzer wrote to Van Tassel and invited him to his remote claim in the dessert, the site of “Giant Rock,” under which Critzer had hollowed out a couple of rooms totaling about 400 square feet.
The granite stone rose seven stories and covered 5,800 square feet. Native Americans had held it and the surrounding area as sacred.
Van Tassel returned to the city and found a career in aviation. But he returned to Giant Rock and Critzer’s camp every chance he got after that first visit.
Drawn to the rock
During World War II, Crtizer came under suspicion as a German spy and was killed in a botched enforcement raid on his dwelling. Five years later, in 1947, George Van Tassel packed up his family — wife and three daughters — and moved to the land of Giant Rock.
By that time, Van Tassel had worked for both Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed International. During World War II, he flew with Howard Hughes, whose eccentricity and passion for eternal earthly life might have rubbed off on Van Tassel.
At giant rock, Van Tassel revived the airfield Critzer had established and built a cafe. Howard Hughes was a frequent visitor to the cafe; he adored the pie that Mrs. Van Tassel made.
The Van Tassels lived in tents and went without electricity until 1960. But they were not hermits. Seekers drawn by Giant Rock’s crystalline structure came to the remote spot for channeling — the rock’s piezo-electric characteristics were believed to open a channel to extraterrestrials. Weekly meditation meetings were held under the rock, and in August 1953, Van Tassel allegedly made contact.
He claimed that aliens from Venus invited him aboard their spaceship, where he received instructions for the machine that could rejuvenate human cells using the energy found naturally in the atmosphere. Van Tassel called his device The Integratron.
George enlisted his brother, Jack, to assist with the construction project, which got under way in 1954. Jack, however, was not privy to the real purpose of the 16-sided done built of concrete and wood.
The theory behind The Integratron was that human bodies are basically electrical devices and aging is a matter of cells exhausting their electrical power. The Integratron would gently restore that power by subjecting the body to the multi-frequency, electrostatic charger.
Candidates for the procedure would have walked through the building, a huge air capacitor, while wearing a white outfit. A generating core of copper wire and capable collecting 50,000 volts of static electricity from the air channeled the natural energy sources. The charges, distributed over a wide range of frequencies, would inundate every cell of the human visitor with life-infusing energy.
The Integratron became a Noah’s Ark for a generation fearful of an alien invasion or nuclear war. And the giant rock became a rallying point for those who believed in the UFO phenomenon. Van Tassel held an annual conference on the topic, drawing more than 10,000 visitors per event. The fees he collected from those attendees helped fund his work in The Integratron.
“He got huge donations. There were so many people who believed in that,” Manyo said in the 1998 interview.
Manyo visited the site several times and went inside The Integratron. But she stayed clear of the conventions.
“They had a lot of kooks who came there, even my brother said there were some (attendees) he couldn’t stand. When they started getting into drugs, then he quit holding them.”
Van Tassel’s fame, and eccentricity, spread across the country through radio and television interviews and lectures on college campuses. He was in the perfect place and state of mind to take advantage of the UFO hysteria that swept the nation in the 1960s and early 1970s. Manyo said that although Van Tassel associated with kooks, the family respected their brother’s personal stories of communicating with aliens.
“It was so authentic the way he would tell it,” she said.
He wrote six books about these experiences, including “I Rode in a Flying Saucer.” Van Tassel also started the non-sectarian, non-profit organization for religious and scientific research, the College of Universal Wisdom.
By January 1978 that college’s quarterly publication reported that The Integratron was 90 percent completed. Van Tassel was making plans to be the test subject when he died of an apparent heart attack, Feb. 9, 1978.
The death came as a huge surprise to the family. Van Tassel was in great physical condition, and his death occurred in a hotel room in the company of his second wife (the first died from cancer). His wife insisted that Van Tassel’s body be cremated before his daughters could arrive for a final viewing.
His followers smelled a conspiracy. The second wife was a chiropractor and had been married twice before she married Van Tassel. She had access to the medical means for inducing death. Both of her previous husbands had died in strange circumstances, as well. Further, someone close to the medical community would have good reason to extinguish the life of a man who was so close to building a device that could rejuvenate worn-out human bodies.
And then there was his wife’s odd behavior after he died.
“After George died, she went completely out of her mind,” Manyo said in 1998. “She barricaded herself in a trailer and put a big, high fence around it.”
The core and other critical components of the Integratron disappeared shortly after Van Tassel’s death, giving further weight to a conspiracy theory. Further, another scientist who had worked on a similar project in the 1940s and ‘50s also had suffered a heart attack under unusual circumstances. Wilhelm Reich, whose Orgone Accumulator came under attack by the Food and Drug Administration, was imprisoned as an imperious tyrant. Reich died Nov. 1, 1957, just three days before he was to be released from prison.
By the time of his death, Van Tassel had accumulated a significant following, even if some of it was from people who thought him and his Integratron to be pure bunk.
After Van Tassel’s death, his family abandoned the site and the Bureau of Land Management bulldozed all the buildings at the airfield, except the Integratron.
The structure still stands and is open for tours and rentals. Although it never lived up to its rejuvenation claim, The Integratron offers an interior that is acoustically refreshing. You can book a 30-minute sonic healing session in the dome; a series of quartz crystal bowls are played live in the sound chamber. And if you are rock musician, the dome is the venue to play.
“The notes sound like they’re coming from inside your mind,” wrote Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes in Rolling Stone Magazine, May 2009. “It was the closest thing to a psychedelic experience I’ve ever had.”