Tuesday, September 6, 2016

South Pasadena: City with a View

A little city with big views...

If you looked in the skies above South Pasadena in the fall of 1913, you might have seen aerialist Roy Knabenshue's amazing dirigible.  Sailing over 800 feet in the air, the flying machine thrilled locals.  For a whopping cost of $25 a ride, a brave traveler could experience what the press reported as "a daring adventure with spectacular views!"

Knabeshue, the first person to fly a dirigible in the United States, certainly knew he had picked a crowd-pleasing location.  The majestic San Gabriel Mountains were nestled in a lush, green valley.  It was an ideal setting to conduct pleasure flights for "brave gentlemen."

But ladies insisted that they be included, too...

One journalist at the time noted that there was "an utter lack of terror or even apprehension" among the women who took flight.  "Not one of them has at any time during a trip expressed alarm."

Instead, they expressed delight in the views.  News reports, telegrams and postcards repeated the same refrain: "The views!  The spectacular views!"

For a city of a little over three square miles, South Pasadena has no shortage of spectacular views.  It's no wonder those Victorian daredevils wanted a bird's eye vantage point.  Ever since the late 19th century sheep ranchers trekked around what we now call Monterey Hills, South Pasadena citizens have loved the region's natural wonders.

Tourists flocked to the famous Raymond Hotel during the early part of the 20th Century to spend a holiday in the place billed "Paradise on Earth."  Even the Gabrieleno/Tongva -- the indigenous tribes who populated the land here long before the first home was built -- spoke with reverence about the sunset views.  

Lucky for us, South Pasadena's spectacular views still delight and inspire.  (You don't even need a dirigible to see them.)

Drive up Via del Rey and park somewhere near the water tower.  Looking north, you'll take in one of the most beautiful views in the entire region.  A sweeping panorama of mountains, a rolling landscape of trees -- it's all there, spread out before you in vivid hues like something taken from the palette of George Inness or Paul Bril.

On the left, you'll notice a regal looking domed structure rising out of the green next to Pasadena's famous Colorado Street Bridge.  Built in 1920, the Spanish Colonial Revival building was once home to the Vista del Arroyo Hotel, one of the region's most sought-after resorts and second only to the Raymond.

During WW2, the property was used by the War Department as McCormack Army Hospital.  Various governmental agencies occupied the space before it finally became what it is today: Pasadena's Richard H. Chambers Court of Appeals building.

There are more prime viewing spots in Monterey Hills.  Head over to the corner of Flores de Oro and Via del Rey.  Looking east, you'll see a swath of city fading into a distant haze.  During the day, it's literally like being on top of the world.  At night, it's like hovering over an enormous Lite Brite.

Same goes for the corner of Alpha and Camino Lindo.  Nestled in and around the many cul de sacs are micro views of what city planners like to call "unimproved wilderness areas."  Those rugged hillsides covered with vegetation give the whole area a wild, woodsy feel -- especially when you see a red-tailed hawk perched in one of the trees.

Raymond Hill might not be as wild, but it offers up some wonderful views of its own.  There is a patch of grass under the water tower on Raymond Hill Road.  Look past the steampunk configuration of Pasadena Water and Power smokestacks below and take in the grand mountain vista.  This is the view that made the former Raymond Hotel famous.  (The hotel dining room was fairly close to this spot.)  It's a great place to watch a sunset, serenaded by parrots who nest in some of the Raymond Hotel's original palms.  

After it gets dark, head over to Raymond Hill Road and Ellincourt.  Years ago, the land below was dotted with orchids and flower fields.  Today, you'll see a wash of twinkling city lights -- reminiscent of the fireflies that used to gather in the orange trees.

Arroyo Drive offers one of the nicest places in town to take in the view.  If you drive down Mission and turn right on Arroyo, you'll notice two green park benches on the west side of the road.  The South Pasadena Skate Park is right below.  So is the 110 freeway.  But what you'll notice is the purple layers of hills, the rows of distant palms and the giant expanse of sky that offers up a daily sunset performance of colors, clouds and light.

Yet it's not just the big views that make South Pasadena so special; it's the multifaceted world view we share here.  South Pas is a small town, sure.  We love our Mayberry reputation.  But we're not homogeneous.  We are a city of diversity set in a large metropolitan area teeming with divergent opinions and varying cultural traditions.  Those differences -- existing side by side -- keep us from being naive.  Those differences make us rich and interesting and complicated and memorable.  

I used to talk to an elderly man who hung out on the benches at Mission Station.  He always referred to himself simply as Pal -- a great name, given his gift for making friends and striking up pleasant conversation.  I asked him once what he talked about most with the many people he met coming and going by train.  

"They all want to know the best place to go, the most interesting thing to see," he said.  "Everyone wants a place with a great view.  And I know the secret.  I know the best view of all."

"Where's that?"  I asked.

"Home," Pal said.  "Just home."

Watch some amazing historical aerial footage of Roy Knabenshue here.
See my slide show of vintage photographs of South Pasadena's Raymond Hotel here.

A version of this article was originally published in 2011 for my column at Patch.

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