Bay Area camp cancels all summer sessions over swastika scandal

A California summer camp tucked away in a woodsy pocket of the Silicon Valley abruptly canceled all summer sessions after several staff members quit over a controversy around a swastika symbol on one of the buildings.

The sudden closure of Hidden Villa in Los Altos impacts some 900 children who had planned to attend day or overnight camps in the coming months.

“Over this past weekend, 4 camp staff, including the Summer Camp Director, handed in their effective resignation immediately,” Board Chair Peter Hartzell and Interim Executive Director Philip Arca wrote in a June 8 letter posted on the Hidden Villa website. “Losing these key positions led to the heart-wrenching decision that we would be unable to responsibly provide a safe Summer Camp experience.”

Camp director Philip James, who is Black, told the Los Altos Town Crier that he resigned on Sunday “due to the organization’s failure to address issues of structural and institutional racism.” The breaking point for him and other staff was the camp’s failure to quickly remove a swastika design on the exterior of the Duveneck house, a historic home on the camp’s property that is available to rent for events such as rehearsal dinners and corporate retreats.

The house was built in 1929 for Frank and Josephine Duveneck, and Josephine reportedly started the first multi-racial residential summer camp in the United States on the property in 1945.

The camp administration explained in its letter that the house had three tiles, each about 12-by-12 inches, with Buddhist swastikas and a lotus embedded in them. When the home was constructed, the symbol would have been considered good luck, but by the 1930s it was a co-opted by the Nazis and has since become a symbol of white supremacy.

“These tiles were purchased by Frank and Josephine Duveneck while on their honeymoon in 1913 traveling through Asia,” Hidden Villa administration said. “It was brought to the community’s attention that the Buddhist symbols were experienced differently and some individuals experienced harm from their presence on the building.”

The organization said it went through a process with staff and the board to address the controversy around the symbol. After community discussions, the tiles were removed on June 7.

β€œThe resignation of our Camp leadership team on June 5th, prior to the decision of the Committee on June 6, putting us in the position of making the difficult decision regarding Camp,” the organization said. “It also highlights the need for the organization to continue to pause, reflect, and further develop plans of action to address the racial equity concerns shared by staff.”

James told the Crier that the process had become “so fraught” for him and other staff that they quit before the removal.

Before the resignations, the camp was already struggling to ramp up to a full staff and had previously canceled its kindergarten and fifth- and sixth-grade day camps due to the shortages, the organization said in the letter.

Hidden Villa wasn’t immediately available for comment. This story will be updated if more details become available.

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