Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Explore South Pasadena's Historic Buildings

Then and now...

The Los Angeles region doesn't have the greatest track record when it comes to preserving landmarks.  Despite the efforts of dedicated preservationists, many architectural wonders have been lost to the wrecking ball.  The Richfield Tower, The Brown Derby, The Garden of Allah, and The Ambassador Hotel are just a few of the historic structures that have been demolished in the name of progress.  (Many South Pasadena residents were worried that our very own Rialto Theater would meet the same fate.  Luckily, for now, that disaster seems to be averted.)

You won't find points of interest once the last art deco tile or Spanish arch has been hauled off to a landfill -- a parking lot here, a nondescript office building there.  What's left behind is a creeping blight of utilitarian sameness that has earned Los Angeles the title of "Strip Mall Capital of the World."  We've gained a lot of dry cleaners and nail salons, but we've lost a lot of our history and perhaps more than a little of our soul.

Luckily for us, we can find more than a few reminders of South Pasadena's history packed into the city's three and a half square miles -- and I'm not just talking about the hundreds of historic homes.  Several of South Pasadena's oldest commercial buildings are still here and within walking distance to downtown.

Much of the town looks surprisingly like it did when it was built in 1922.  Back then, the city was experiencing a surge in new construction.  When Security Trust & Savings Bank announced the opening of a new branch at the corner of Mission and Fair Oaks that year, 2000 people showed up at the grand opening to marvel at the building's grand design.  Each guest was given a free illustrated booklet, On Old Rancho San Pascual: The Story of Pasadena.  It was written by Lawrence L. Hill, a bank employee in the publicity department.  (Some things never change. Copywriters are always secret authors...)

You can actually buy a reprint of the book here:

If you head down to El Centro, you'll find several other examples of South Pasadena's earliest buildings.  The historic South Pasadena Public Library was created with a gift from Andrew Carnegie and designed by the firm of Marsh & Russell -- famous for drafting the whimsical plan of Venice, California, including the famous St. Marks Hotel on Windward Avenue.  Many buildings in South Pasadena came from the drawing board of Norman Foote Marsh.  The South Pasadena Unified School District Administration building across the street from the library is another example of his work.

During a 1917 bond campaign, city officials called the existing El Centro School an "out-of-date firetrap."  In 1928, it was finally torn down and replaced by the building we know today.  El Centro School educated many South Pas children until it officially closed in 1979 due to low enrollment.  The school district has been there ever since.  (You will still find evidence of the building's original use -- you have to crouch down to take a drink from one of the kid-sized drinking fountains that   remain.)

If you stop in for coffee at Kaldi, take a moment to notice the building.  In 1904, it opened as South Pasadena Bank, the first financial institution in town.  Edwin Cawston of Cawston Ostrich Farm was the bank vice president and made the very first deposit.  (The original bank vault is still behind the Kaldi counter.)

It seems the building was destined to entertain hip patrons.  At the bank's 1904 grand opening, the Women's Improvement Association served punch and arranged for a performance of classical music by a notable trio.  Apparently, the arrangement bored the grand opening attendees who felt the situation called for something a little more festive.  One reporter noted that the music "was of a higher class than the appreciation of the crowd warranted."

I can't help but wonder if the disgruntled bank guests might not have wandered over to the building around the corner.  One of South Pasadena's oldest buildings, the Iron Works Building opened around 1887 as a general store when South Pasadena barely had 500 residents.  In its 129 years, it has served as a chapel, a telegraph station, a bike shop, a foundry, and a ticket office.  Today, it is the South Pasadena Historical Museum.  Among the museum's many treasures is the original Wurlitzer organ from the Rialto Theater.

If you look across Meridian, you'll see the Alexander Building, South Pasadena's first commercial building in the historic business district.  In 1906, a businessman named Alexander R. Graham cleared the eucalyptus grove at the southeast corner of Mission and Meridian and built the concrete block building, which he named after himself.  (He wasn't satisfied with only one namesake.  Later, he built the structure next door and called it the A. R. Graham building.)

Every Thursday night, the Alexander Building is a backdrop for the busy South Pasadena Farmer's Market, but even back in 1925 it was attracting crowds.  That year, the merchants on Mission Street built an elaborate platform extending from the Alexander Building for the purpose of announcing the World Series in real time.  The area was swarmed by baseball fans who thrilled as an announcer gave running play-by-play.  The Pasadena Star-News donated the services of a telegraph operator who relayed the action directly from the ball park.  A scorekeeper even marked a large chalkboard so passersby could see current stats.  (The Pirates beat the Senators that year 4-3)

Think of it as a 1920s version of livetweeting!

If you look across Mission, you'll notice a red brick building.  Now a commercial building, it opened in 1923 as the Mission Hotel.  Ads for the hotel promised "New, modern, all outside rooms.  Near streetcars and restaurants."  The weekly rate was $6-7 depending on the view.

While waiting for the train several years ago, I spoke with an elderly gentleman who I often saw sitting on a park bench near the Walking Man statue.  When I asked his name, he said, "You can call me Pal."

Pal told me that he once lived in a room in the former Mission Hotel.  It was during the 1940s when the building was used as a lodging house.

"When I was there, I was in love with Olivia," he told me.  "To this day, I look at that building, and I remember what she looked like walking by with the sunlight on her hair."

"What happened to Olivia?"  I asked.

"She married a friend of mine when he came back from the war.  They moved to Northern California.  I read that he died about 8 years ago.  As far as I know, Olivia is still there..."

"Why don't you get in touch with her?"  I asked.

His eyes darted back to the old building.

"You can't go back," he said.  "But it's nice to have these reminders of the way things were.  It's like the potential of what could have been is still there in the bricks of that old place.  I'm glad it didn't get torn down."

I couldn't agree more.

For the definitive history book on South Pasadena, you must acquire a copy of Jane Apostol's South Pasadena, A Centennial History.

Read my interview with Jane from a few years ago here.

Want to leave a comment?  Head over to the Glimpses of South Pasadena Community Forum and start a conversation!