In prickly Greater Los Angeles, find your comfort zone in Pasadena, where world-class artwork, renowned architecture and a vibrant old town are in full flower year-round.
You don’t need rose-colored glasses to appreciate Pasadena.
Certainly, this stately Southern California city is typecast in many minds as the clean and quaint backdrop for the annual Tournament of Roses Parade and the often-thrilling Rose Bowl game that follows. Incredibly ornate and colorful floats, youthful and spirited marching bands, seemingly perfect weather (although this year, shockingly, uppity dark clouds rained on the parade), dazzling cheerleaders and the full-throated, frenzied roar of football fans paint quite the alluring picture for millions of television viewers nationwide. Only the clearest-eyed among them&emdash;and early on New Year’s Day, their number must be especially small&emdash;take any notice of the intriguing buildings that line the parade route along Colorado Boulevard or have much interest in the town beyond its annual brief barrage of rosy spectacle.
People who do manage to leave the comfort of their La-Z-Boys and pay an in-person visit to Pasadena will discover that it is alive and kicking&emdash;and not just in early January. Glitz gives way to a refined appeal, accentuated in specific ways by one of the country’s best art museums, the awe-inspiring craftsmanship of a famous bungalow home and a go-to historic downtown area perfect for strolling day or night, with restaurants and retail ensconced in restored, architecturally rich buildings, making it the envy of preservation societies everywhere.
In August, we had the common Sacramentans’ experience of driving through the hot and stinky (to our city-slicker noses) Central Valley on Interstate 5, past Santa Clarita and its roller coaster-sprouting Magic Mountain adventure park, over the Santa Susana Mountains and down into the San Fernando Valley, our teeth gritted for the anticipated madness and frustration of Los Angeles’ freeway system. After a few traffic snarls and one narrowly averted disaster involving an exit only lane, we found ourselves successfully plopped in Pasadena. With jawbones loosened and pulses retreating, we pulled into the Norton Simon Museum’s parking lot with high hopes for a little nonhighway, high-brow entertainment.
As we approached the ticket counter, I grabbed my wallet in anticipation of paying the $8 general entry fee for both of us. Behind the counter, a smiling museum worker made a no-no gesture with her hands and told us that admission is free from 6 to 9 p.m. on the first Friday of every month.
We made the most of the experience, bestowing suitably impressed glances on paintings and sculptures&emdash;the outdoor sculpture garden is sublime. Permanent exhibits include gold panels and rich oils from the 14th through 16th centuries, exquisite portraits and landscapes from the 17th and 18th centuries, and 19th century works by Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir that left quite an impression, so to speak. We were especially intrigued by a temporary showing of Rembrandt’s etchings. (The museum’s current special exhibitions are Ooo: Early Prints by Ed Ruscha through Jan. 22, 2007; and The Collectible Moment: Photographs in the Norton Simon Museum, through Feb. 26, 2007.)
Norton Simon (1907â€“1993) was a Southern California industrialist who began collecting art in the 1950s. Los Angeles Times Magazine has said that his museum contains the greatest painting collection in the Western United States.
When we left a few minutes before closing time, we were handed a frame-worthy print of Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Joerg Fugger, from 1474. A sign below the actual painting, I had noticed, reported: The objective, realistic depiction of this youth is one of the earlier departures from the stiff, stylized, late Gothic treatment of portraitures.
Speaking of stiff and not terribly stylized, the next morning’s two-hour walking tour of historic Old Pasadena (offered at 9 a.m. the first Saturday of every month) was led by a docent who, despite two years on the job, frequently consulted someone else’s typed notes and read from them verbatim. I knew we were in clumsy hands when, at our first stop along Raymond Avenue while gathered before a lovely expanse of public greenery, she said, This is Monument Park. Someone in our group of nine pointed out she was mistaken. The guide shrugged and responded not reassuringly, OK, it’s Memorial Park. I’m from Woodland Hills. What the hell do I know?
Regardless, the tour was informative. We were told, for example, that along with Southern California cities Whittier and Redlands, Pasadena was a prime destination for snowbirds (people from colder climes who seek warmth in the wintertime) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We also learned that the city has an aggressive adaptive reuse preservation strategy. For example, the California National Guard building, on Raymond between Walnut and Holly streets, is a Works Progress Administration project from the 1930s that has been converted to an arts school.
One Colorado, a collection of upscale shops (including A/X Armani Exchange and J. Crew), restaurants
(Il Fornaio, Johnny Rockets, etc.) and cinemas lining a few interweaving alleys between DeLacey and Fair Oaks avenues, has helped make Colorado Boulevard a bustling destination for tourists and locals alike, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings. Colorado, the Rose Parade’s main drag, contains several striking examples of early-20th-century architectural styles and flourishes, including the art deco building that now houses Z Gallerie (42 W. Colorado Blvd.) and the ornate ceiling in the eastern dining room of Louise’s Trattoria (2 E. Colorado Blvd.). In fact, many buildings that were constructed before World War II have been repurposed for high-end retail chains; boulevard tenants also include Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Crate & Barrel.
We got an inside look at the Castle Green, which before being converted to condominiums many decades ago was a grand, turn-of-the-century hotel. A warm, dark ambiance prevails in its ground-floor common rooms, where interior windows and doors all are framed by elaborate woodwork and deep-red rugs and draperies dictate the tone. The four-story Braley Building, a block north of Castle Green on Raymond past Green Street, has an impressive atrium along with antiques shops and a cafe. A gentleman named Bill Richardson walked us through his conversion-in-progress alley home behind the Raymond Theatre (which, sadly, is being adaptively re-imagined into a condo project). His residence, built in 1909, used to be a church.
The nearby Gamble House, part of a separate tour, has the city’s outright best interior. Constructed in 1908 to the precise Craftsman details provided by renowned architects Charles and Henry Greene, the retirement residence of snowbirds David and Mary Gamble (of Procter & Gamble) was deeded to the city in 1966 and is overseen in a joint partnership with the University of Southern California’s architecture school. Interest in Greene and Greene homes has surged in recent years, the American Arts and Crafts style influencing many bungalow owners’ redesign projects. (You can see one Greene and Greene locally, on H Street between Alhambra Boulevard and 33rd Street, across from McKinley Park.)
Jamie Bray was our competent tour guide that Saturday afternoon, showing us around the 8,200-square-foot bungalow that was extensively restored two years ago. In the living room, she pointed out how different areas serve different purposes, including the fireplace sandwiched between two benches (an inglenook, we learned) and the reading chairs along an opposite wall. If you visit, be sure to examine the elaborate redwood carvings that run across the entrance and the adjoining perpendicular walls. Lampshades designed by the micromanaging Greene brothers shroud custom-made 16- to 18-watt bulbs that barely illuminate the surroundings. Bray explained that in the early 1900s, people were anxious about being exposed to too much artificial light&emdash;after all, they weren’t too far removed from candlelit living.
Brighter and boasting a great amount of storage space, the kitchen contains another example of how the Greenes slaved over details: Its countertops are made with sugar pine, a soft wood that partly absorbs the sound of dropped pans, thereby sparing the delicate ears of the Gambles and houseguests. In the downstairs guest bedroom, the burnished silver color of its twin beds is echoed in the lightly gray-streaked woodwork. People ask me why there are hospital beds here, Gray told our group of 15 or so huddled in the room. Actually, this style was all the rage back then.
The Gamble House’s charms are too many to mention, and architectural buffs might not be satisfied with the standard hour-long tour. They should consider reserving a spot on the 2 1/2-hour Behind the Velvet Ropes tour, which costs $40 and begins at 10:30 a.m. on the second Wednesday of every month, excluding August and December.
The fabled bungalow’s garage serves as a gift shop, where tour tickets ($10 general) must be purchased. Also for sale: a self-guided tour pamphlet ($1.50) for 25 houses in the immediate area, including the former home of Charles Greene, where he experimented with designs that later were used for clients, and a second walking tour of 20 other architecturally significant houses (a few of them by the Greene brothers, south of the California Institute of Technology in a gorgeous neighborhood that surely rivals old-money manses in Bel-Air and Beverly Hills).
Pasadena’s other tourist spots include Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which gives two-hour tours that require many months’ advance reservation; the Kidspace Children’s Museum, a combination play area and gardens; the Pacific Asia Museum; the Pasadena Museum of California Art; the Pasadena Museum of History; and the 1,800-vendor Rose Bowl Flea Market and Swap Meet, where savvy collectors snatch up shabby chic-style antiques and vintage designer clothing on the second Sunday of the month. People who are content to shop in more formal fashion flock to Colorado Boulevard, between Pasadena Avenue and the Arroyo Parkway (which includes the Old Pasadena attractions mentioned above), and to Lake Avenue between Colorado and California boulevards.
As we all know, a rose is a rose. What some of you have yet to discover, however, is that Pasadena blossoms with many year-round attractions.
One Place To Spend a Day
Although outside Pasadena city limits (barely), The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is not to be missed. Plan on spending at least three hours there because, as its formal title implies, the attractions are many.
In one building, for example, you can see rare books such as a Gutenberg Bible and early editions of works by William Shakespeare. Another building contains some marvelous paintings, including the iconic pair of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy and Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie. Exterior attractions include a playful children’s garden, a series of inspiring sculptures on the North Vista lawn and a well-imagined Japanese-style garden. The overall feel is that of grand European palace grounds.
The Huntington facilities, 1151 Oxford Road in San Marino, are open from noon to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends; closed Mondays. (The comparatively early closing time, according to communications coordinator Lisa Blackburn, accommodates evening activities such as concerts, lectures, nature walks, sleepovers and members’ events.) Admission is $15 general, $12 for ages 65 and older, $10 for ages 12 through 18, and $6 for ages 5 through 11. For more information: (626) 405-2100 or huntington.org.
Where To Stay
Lodging in Pasadena will cost you more than in most other cities within the Los Angeles metropolis. Here are a few possibilities:
â€¢ Super 8: 2863 E. Colorado Blvd.; (626) 449-3020. Two-person rate: $63â€“$99.
â€¢ Best Western Colorado Inn of Pasadena: 2156 E. Colorado Blvd.; (626) 793-9339. Two-person rate: $80â€“$110.
â€¢ The Westin-Pasadena: 191 N. Los Robles Ave.; (626) 792-2727. Two-
person rate: $145â€“$239.
â€¢ The Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel and Spa: 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave.; (626) 568-3900. Two-person rate: $310â€“$320.
For centuries, the area that now constitutes Pasadena was populated by the Hahamogna Indians, whose peaceful way of life was obliterated by the arrival of Spaniards and the Europeans’ establishment of the San Gabriel Mission in 1771. Gradually, white settlement increased and, in 1886, Pasadena was incorporated. Four years later, the first Jan. 1 Tournament of Roses Parade was held and, in 1901, Pasadena became a charter city.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, some of Pasadena’s landmarks were constructed, including The Gamble House, Colorado Street Bridge (renovated in the 1990s) and the Rose Bowl. By 1930, the population had grown to more than 30,000 and included significant numbers of Chinese, Mexicans and African Americans. The West’s first freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, linked Pasadena with downtown Los Angeles. Cal Tech played a major role in weapons research and advancement during World War II, and from 1970 to 1999 its faculty won 10 Nobel Prizes.
Today, Pasadena has nearly 135,000 residents. Smog can be oppressive, but clear days allow wondrous views of the looming San Gabriel Mountains. With its important residential and commercial architecture and the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena arguably is one of the Greater Los Angeles area’s most underrated tourist destinations.
For More Information
For visitors to Pasadena, as the Greene brothers would confirm, the glory is in the details. Here’s how to find out more:
â€¢ The Gamble House: 4 Westmoreland Place; (626) 793-3334; gamblehouse.org
â€¢ Jet Propulsion Laboratory: the north end of Oak Grove Drive; (818) 354-9314; jpl.nasa.gov
â€¢ Norton Simon Museum: 411 W. Colorado Blvd.; (626) 449-6840; nortonsimon.org
â€¢ Old Pasadena Walking Tours: (626) 441-6333; pasadenaheritage.org
â€¢ One Colorado: (626) 564-1066; onecolorado.com
Tournament of Roses Parade&emdash;The annual parade starts at 8 a.m., lasts 2 1/2 hours and traverses 5.5 miles. Want to buy grandstand seats for $40 to $85 a pop? Call Sharp Seating at (626) 795-4171.