I'm sitting at a sidewalk cafe table on Myrtle Avenue. It's at the center of the Old Town district, a four-block-long section of turn-of-the-century brick buildings in the heart of Monrovia. Sun sparkles through the old ficus trees that line the street. The scene resembles something out of New England or the Midwest, and in fact is often used by Hollywood production companies as a set representing such locales.
Pam Fitzpatrick ― co-owner of the Dollmakers, a store on Myrtle ― is seated across from me, a big smile spread across her face. She's trying to explain just what's so great about Monrovia. Trouble is, passersby have interrupted her three times, stopping to ask about her shop, her family, her dolls.
Finally she gets a break and responds, "It's the community. It's not a place for hermits. It's way too friendly."
A place where the past is preserved
The history of this friendly place dates back to the late 1800s. William Monroe, a Los Angeles city councilman who made his fortune building railroads, moved to the area with his family in the spring of 1884, attracted by its lovely setting at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. In short order Monroe rounded up a small group to establish a 120-acre town site. Lots went up for sale on May 17, 1886, the official birthday of Monrovia, which makes it one of the oldest cities in Los Angeles County.
Harking back to those early days are the buildings on Myrtle Avenue. Outside Boxx Jewelers stands a fine old jeweler's street clock that's been keeping time at this spot since 1921. Here and there you can see an old sign for a livery stable or gas station, now painted over but indelibly imprinted into the brick façade. Fitzpatrick tells me that the upstairs of her former building was once a house of ill repute.
According to John Veenstra, executive director of the chamber of commerce, "In Monrovia, everybody has an interest in preserving the town's history." The town has not one but two historical preservation groups, one dedicated to restoring old commercial buildings and landmarks, the other more focused on important homes.
In such a history-conscious town, even the newer buildings are made to look older. The front of the Kirkorian Movie Cinema 12 on Myrtle Avenue, which opened in November 2000, has a 1930s art deco design, with turrets, stained glass, and a wraparound marquee. Downtown shop owners heralded their new neighbor by fixing up many other historic buildings. The effect is a little like Old Pasadena, with shops and restaurants centered around redeveloped classic structures--only the rents haven't gone up and mom-and-pop shops still prevail.
Frills Vintage Tea Parlour is one such homespun establishment. Frills invites "dear ladies, fine gentlemen, and young heirs" to take tea or lunch in an authentic Victorian English atmosphere: Patrons can even borrow a boa or hat from a trunk to complete the mood.
You could easily spend half a day visiting Old Town's antiques stores, art galleries, and cafes, and then venture out into the surrounding streets ― Alta Vista, Melrose, and Magnolia Avenues ― to gaze at all the beautiful old homes. Styles range from Craftsman to Spanish colonial revival, but almost all have fresh coats of paint and well-tended gardens.
And don't forget the beautiful outdoors that first attracted William Monroe. In Monrovia Canyon Park you can hike through 80 acres of lush streamside forest and see a 30-foot waterfall that flows year-round from the San Gabriel Mountains. Then head back into Old Town for more of that small-town, friendly charm.
Monrovia is in the western San Gabriel Valley, 8 miles east of Pasadena. Old Town is on Myrtle Ave. between Olive Ave. and Foothill Blvd. Take the Myrtle Ave. exit off I-210 and go north about 1/2 mile. Area code is 626.
Monrovia Canyon Park. The Nature Center has interpretive displays and maps. 8-5 Mon, Wed-Sun; $2 per car. 1200 North Canyon Blvd.; 256-8282.
Old Town Monrovia Farmers' Market. Friday evenings from 4 to 8. S. Myrtle Ave.; 357-7442.
Boxx Jewelers. Handcrafted jewelry. 518 S. Myrtle; 358-6171.
Dollmakers. Every kind of doll you can imagine. 505 S. Myrtle; 357-1091.
Historic Lighting. Arts and Crafts-style lighting, furniture, and accessories. 114 E. Lemon Ave.; 303-4899.
Kaleidoscope Antiques. Two floors, about 30 antique dealers. 306 S. Myrtle; 303-4042.
Mystic Sisters. Eclectic books, cards, incense, and unusual gifts. 417 S. Myrtle; 256-1212.
Frills Vintage Tea Parlour. Sandwiches, pastries, and 68 kinds of tea. 504 S. Myrtle; 303-3201.
Monrovia Bakery. A gathering spot for locals, with great pies and pastries. 506 S. Myrtle; 357-1895.
Monrovia Coffee Company. Coffee, ice cream, and a quiet place to sit, inside or out. 425 S. Myrtle; 305-1377.
Monrovian Family Restaurant. Local favorite with sidewalk tables and good American food. 534 S. Myrtle; 359-8364.