Those who visit can enter a 21-foot-tall, pink granite pyramid and stand on top of a metal plaque that officially marks the spot that is the “Center of the World.” While recognized as such by both California’s Imperial County and France’s Institut Geographique National, the designation doesn’t stem from science or a specific historical event, but rather from the imagination and subsequent endeavors of its founder Jacques-André Istel.
A French-American, Istel has a varied background, working on Wall Street and serving as a marine in the Korean War before becoming well-known for being a famous parachutist. He co-founded Parachutes, Inc, the country’s first parachuting school, and is often credited with bringing parachuting to the American mainstream.
Istel had a habit of purchasing land, and in the 1950s he bought 2,600 acres in the Sonoran Desert. “I told my wife, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with this bare land, but it has to be entertaining,'” he told Roadside America.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Istel decided he wanted to build a town, and have that town recognized as the Center of the World. “Why not the center of the world?” Istel told a New York Times reporter when asked to elaborate.
Istel then decided that the first step to making this a reality was to write a children’s book. “My problem was that laws are logical and my concept lacked logic. Answer: find something no one argues about,” he said to KCET. Istel reasoned that no one argues with children’s books. “Who argues with a fairy tale? Or states that Red Riding Hood wore a blue dress?” he writes on Felicity’s official website.
After writing his book—Coe the Good Dragon at the Center of the World—he convinced Imperial County to legally recognize the area on his land as the official spot of the Center of the World. Next, he established his town in 1986, naming it Felicity after his wife, Felicia Lee.
Besides the pyramid marking the Center of the World, Istel has built several other monuments in Felicity.
Chapel on the Hill
The Chapel on the Hill was the second structure he decided to build, along with an accompanying hilltop so that the church could be the highest point in Felicity. “I’m not particularly religious,” he told Roadside America, “but if you’re going to build a House of God, it’s got to be on the highest spot.” He brought in 150,000 tons of dirt for the hilltop.
Stairs to Nowhere
The 25-foot spiral staircase is actually from the Eiffel Tower, although its purpose in Felicity is decorative.
Museum of History in Granite
Istel’s on-going project is the Museum of History in Granite. He has placed a series of triangular granite blocks in Felicity, on which he is having the history of the world inscribed. The panels include everything that he deems worthy of telling future generations, from the history of humanity to the Marine Corps Korean Wall Memorial. There are currently close to 500 engraved panels.
Tips for visiting
From Thanksgiving to Easter, a 15-minute tour of Felicity is offered to visitors. It costs $3 at the entrance and another $2 for the certificate stating that you’ve been to the Center of the World. While there is no tour in summer, visitors can stop by on their own, although the temperatures get incredibly hot in the desert. There are driving directions on the official town website.