Fix up a classic house, fix up a great city — that's what they do in this LA suburb
Just inside Pasadena’s city limits, Colorado Boulevard opens up as it reaches the Arroyo Seco. There, a curving quarter-mile bridge crosses the gorge, its roadbed hanging 150 feet above the canyon.
The old Vista del Arroyo Hotel, now a courthouse, looms like a sentry tower guarding the city. The San Gabriel Mountains, topped with snow, form a surprisingly wintry backdrop.
This is the classic view of Pasadena: The arroyo is the city’s symbolic heart and the center of the Arts and Crafts tradition that arose in Pasadena a century ago. Architectural historian and Pasadena resident Robert Winter says the bridge enhances the arroyo’s beauty by bringing together the manmade and the natural worlds. “The bridge almost completes the place,” he says. “It’s lovely. And they practically had to tear it down to save it.”
Once closed because of seismic concerns, the 1913 bridge underwent a complex restoration in the 1990s. Each summer thousands of people from the city’s diverse neighborhoods converge on the bridge during a festival celebrating its survival.
The bridge is an artistic triumph, but in its day its striking, curvilinear design was revolutionary too. It was the tallest of its kind at the time, modern, yet with a grandeur to rival the Old World structures that inspired it. In this way, the bridge embodies Pasadena’s reverence for its past and the inventive, progressive spirit that has long been part of the city’s life. It’s a rich legacy but also an ongoing challenge: Can a city be both a storehouse of history and a hothouse for new ideas?
While the Charles and Henry Greene-designed Gamble House, overlooking the arroyo, is the city’s best-known Arts and Crafts landmark, the style also became popular in middle-class areas. To this day, Pasadena neighborhoods of all income levels are filled with vintage Craftsman homes. Beneath the city’s dense urban forest, low walls of Arroyo Seco stone and clinker brick front brown-shingled homes with porches set under graceful overhangs. And although Pasadena’s best-known parade is the Tournament of Roses, each day in these communities a far less formal procession takes place ― baby strollers, bicyclists, walkers, and runners. Neighbors greeting neighbors.
There’s a deep appreciation for these houses’ design and the philosophy they express: The Craftsman ethos emphasized the handmade and personally inspired in a time of increased mechanization. It’s an ideal that certainly resonates during our cyber era of reality 2.0.
“When we discovered Craftsman homes, we knew that this was our architecture. It said home to us,” says Patty Judy, who lives with husband Juan de la Cruz in a 1911 home in the city’s Bungalow Heaven neighborhood. “It’s the simplicity and functionality, the grounding to nature. Because of the natural woods and the big windows, the house seems like it’s almost growing from the earth.”
Architectural historian Robert Winter resides in one of Pasadena’s most significant Craftsman structures, the onetime home of renowned tile maker Ernest Batchelder. Strangers sometimes appear at Winter’s door with Batchelder tiles; they invariably declare that they want to return the pieces to their proper home. With a grandfather who sold furniture by Craftsman icon Gustav Stickley, Winter is to the Craftsman born. He’s also an avowed modernist, so while Winter admires Craftsman warmth and workmanship, he’s less reverential than those Pasadena residents who practically revert to hushed tones as they speak of Greene and Greene.
Winter recalls observing a carpenter restore built-in drawers in a Greene and Greene house. The drawers functioned exquisitely. But the bemused carpenter said a far less complicated scheme would have worked equally well. “All of that work! It’s kind of funny,” Winter says. “They didn’t need to do it. But they knocked themselves out.”
The Greenes set a lofty standard, and Pasadena residents are still knocking themselves out as they restore their homes. Todd Ellis, a film-industry propmaster, and wife Michele Carnes Ellis spent more than six years working on a two-story 1909 house in the city’s Orange Heights neighborhood. “It has been tons of work, almost non-stop. A complete resurrection,” says Todd. “There are old wood floors and stairs that creak. We had to do all new wiring, reroof, and put on handmade red-cedar shingles. But we love it. It’s like a big cabin in the woods.”
Restoration, says Todd, promotes community as residents share insight, tips, and resources: Architecture and design provide a common bond.
“People who like old houses are into a particular vibe. More Americana,” says Todd. “It gets carried over into what you do. We sit out on our porch on hot evenings and see our neighbors and have a beer. It’s totally Norman Rockwell in a bizarre kind of way.”
In the hills along the upper arroyo, there’s another famous bridge. This glass-and-steel design by Craig Ellwood Associates is as stark and modern as the Colorado Street Bridge is romantic. Since 1976, it has housed classrooms, studios, and offices for the Hillside Campus of Art Center College of Design, one of the country’s leading institutions for automotive design, among 11 other disciplines.
Along with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology, where Albert Einstein worked in the early 1930s, Art Center adds a forward-thinking dimension to the city’s cultural life. Its new South Campus has converted an old aerospace plant into a 100,000-square-foot facility, notable for its dramatic skylights, sculptural staircase, and a gallery housed in the factory’s old wind tunnel.
The reminders of the city’s rich legacy of invention are everywhere, whether you’re walking in Einstein’s steps through a CalTech courtyard or catching a glimpse of Frank Lloyd Wright’s La Miniatura hidden in the woods near the arroyo. This is a city of ideas and culture, where neighbors come together at a world-class museum like the Norton Simon, at the venerable Pasadena Playhouse theater, and in bookstores, most notably Vroman’s Bookstore, which has been here since 1894. That said, today’s Pasadena is not without its divides, whether economic, cultural, or simply physical ― such as Interstate 210, which roughly cuts the city in half.
One of the key challenges facing Pasadena is figuring out how to promote the city’s highest ideals and make them accessible and real for the entire community. That effort is taking many forms.
After losing its previous space, the innovative Furious Theatre Company found a new home when the Pasadena Playhouse reached out and offered use of its Balcony Theater, an arrangement that lasted for seven years–and which ended with the theater company in better financial shape than the playhouse. Side Street Projects, an arts organization, has worked with more than 1,000 artists to help them both thrive creatively and be better businesspeople, so the city can hold on to its community of working artists. The organization also extends a hand to kids with a program called Alternate Routes, in which colorful buses equipped with workbenches are sent into city neighborhoods to teach children the basics of woodworking. Greene and Greene would no doubt approve.
Driving through the city’s Garfield Heights neighborhood, Susan Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, the second-largest preservation organization in California, points out a restored Greene and Greene bungalow. It’s unpretentious, warm, and inviting ― Pasadena through and through. Not long ago, however, it was a crack house, ready to be sold for its land value and set to be replaced by apartments.
The house was refurbished through the organization’s Heritage Housing Partners. The program provides city-backed financial assistance to first-time homebuyers with modest incomes who agree to protect the house’s architectural character.
“We begged them to sell us this property,” says Mossman. “We put $25,000 into its restoration and sold it to a neighborhood family. The house has helped change this end of the street.”
Since 1977 Pasadena Heritage has fought to make sure the city doesn’t forget its luminous past. Its victories include saving the Colorado Street Bridge and protecting historic buildings in Old Pasadena; the district has evolved into Southern California’s most appealing retail center. But the organization is also using preservation as a tool to enhance neighborhood life. Says Mossman, “Saving houses and protecting the community are part of the same effort.”
In a region where sprawl has created poorly planned, faceless neighborhoods, there’s a hunger for an alternative. That craving is born of a desire to recapture a community ideal that seems to be slipping away. Pasadena is less an exercise in nostalgia than about being a bridge between the past and what is to come. And in the finest Craftsman tradition, it all begins at home.
“It’s not just about architecture but about people,” says Bungalow Heaven resident Patty Judy. “There’s a spirit to our house, and not in some ghostly way. My husband put together a list of the people who have lived here. This house was a place of protection, a place that helped them, just as it is for us. We know we’re part of a long line of people who have lived in this house. Now we’re the ones taking care of it.”
YEAR INCORPORATED: 1886
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $676,200
MEDIAN AGE OF RESIDENTS: 37.2
NAME: While the area’s Native American settlers were the Hahamogna, “Pasadena” is said to come from a Chippewa word meaning “crown of the valley.”
FAMOUS PRAISE: In 1911 Theodore Roosevelt said of the Arroyo Seco, “This arroyo would make one of the greatest parks in the world.”
NUMBER OF TREES: An estimated 425,000
BUILDINGS ON NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES: 125