Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Appreciating Pasadena, Garden of the California Dream

Saving Civilization from the Mass-Production Mindset

Enthroned above an oak-studded arroyo in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, Pasadena the place is actually an idea—the idea that simple, healthful living amid gardens, orange groves, and the fellowship of good neighbors can save civilization from the mass-production mindset of the industrial era. Pasadena represents the central idea that created Southern California. Described by acclaimed turn-of-the-20th-century astronomer George Ellery Hale as the “Athens of the West,” Pasadena took root in agriculture and then grew its own golden age of arts and sciences.

But in the beginning there was Indiana, where winters were cold and brutal. After the particularly harsh winter of 1872-73, a like-minded group of Indiana farmers sent schoolteacher and journalist Daniel M. Berry west by train to scout out a Southern California site for an agricultural paradise. Berry’s choice was the western San Gabriel Valley, where Ivy League-educated farmers already cultivated vineyards, orange groves, and roses in the sunshine and salubrious fresh air.

Berry and his fellows, who came to be known as the Indiana Colony, bought a 4,000-acre section of the San Pasqual Ranch, at the price of $6.31 per acre. The Indianans established themselves as the San Gabriel Orange Grove Association in 1875. They called their community Pasadena, a Chippewa word purported to mean “Crown of the Valley,” and set about cultivating the good life. The arrival of the railroad in 1885 brought bushels of well-heeled easterners eager to escape to a kinder climate—the beginning of Pasadena’s long-running reputation as a choice West Coast winter vacation destination.

Many of Pasadena’s wealthy winterers decided to stay on year-round, to soak up a full measure of sun and the scent of orange blossoms. They soon built grand homes on the city’s wide, wandering streets. Business tycoons and the heirs of industry included Adolphus Busch of St. Louis, Chicago’s William J. Wrigley, and Henry E. Huntington. Prominent new citizens also included Mrs. James Garfield, widow of the assassinated president, and the children of John Brown, abolitionist martyr. Feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, once freed from the insanity behind “The Yellow Wallpaper,” made her last home in Pasadena.

Pasadena's iconic Gamble House built by Greene & Greene for heirs of the Procter & Gamble fortune (photo by Brandon Shigeta)

Pasadena’s iconic Gamble House, built by Greene & Greene for heirs of the Procter & Gamble fortune (photo by Brandon Shigeta)

For writers and artists, Pasadena was a good choice. The arts and all aspects of culture, not just agriculture and horticulture, flourished. Pasadena’s genteel pursuit of history, literature, poetry, music, art, and the artistic aspects of horticulture created a heaven on earth for the upper middle-class liberal Protestants who made it their home.

Wearing the Craftsman Crown

The design and decorative demands of the city’s well-to-do residents meant steady work for the country’s finest artists and architects. It was no accident, then, that Pasadena soon became an architectural showcase. Many of its treasures still stand. The Hollywood types on L.A.’s westside may have square footage but Pasadenans have architecture.

The Louis Tiffany stained glass in the handcrafted oak doors of the Gamble House (photo by John Lopez)

Louis Tiffany stained glass, in the intricate image of a spreading California oak, accents the handcrafted oak doors of the Gamble House. (photo by John Lopez)

Most “Pasadena” of them all, ultimately, was the impact of the Arts and Crafts movement, inspired by John Ruskin and William Morris in England but popularized throughout the United States by German immigrant Gustav Stickley, publisher of The Craftsman magazine and himself a craftsman-style furniture designer.

window detail, Gamble House (photo by Kansas Sebastian)

leaded-glass window detail, Gamble House (photo by Kansas Sebastian)

Craftsman architecture was inspired by the nature-oriented style of summerhouses built in British colonial India—an uncluttered, outdoorsy design that seemed to combine Japanese (sometimes Chinese) sensibilities with Tudor touches and the broad, sweeping eaves of a Swiss chalet. In Pasadena these distinctive homes were sided with shakes or shingles, usually redwood, and built upon a foundation of boulders brought up from the Arroyo Seco; prominent chimneys also were built of arroyo stone. With wide porches supported by heavy tie beams, craftsman houses typically featured roof supports that extended beyond the gable. Many included sleeping porches, to take full advantage of Southern California’s mild weather.

Most important, though, the craftsman approach was a repudiation of all things Victorian, including architecture and furnishings that were ornate, overly fussy, overstuffed. The Arts and Crafts movement instead emphasized simplicity and harmony with nature—integrating every element of interior design, including light and air, with the world outside, down to the last landscaping detail.

The architectural achievements of brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene in Pasadena came to epitomize America’s Arts and Crafts movement—pragmatic, functional design with aesthetic sensibility, a social statement made through architecture. “I seek till I find what is truly useful, and then I try to make it beautiful,” Charles Greene once said. The Greenes’ oft-imitated style was reserved not just for a home’s architecture. Greene and Greene also shared their design vision with talented craftspeople who created Tiffany stained-glass lamps, leaded-glass windows, furniture, light fixtures, rugs, and other interior and exterior items. Yet the brothers Greene reserved their talents for the wealthy, contradicting core Arts and Crafts ideals. As historian Kevin Starr observed, a notable characteristic of a Greene and Greene home is its “cunning concealment” of servant staircases and other service features.

The Craftsman style bungalow is popular everywhere in California (this home is in San Jose), and represents the middle-class desire for quality craftsmanship. (photo by David Sawyer)

The craftsman-style bungalow is popular throughout California (this home is in San Jose), representing the middle-class desire for quality craftsmanship. (photo by David Sawyer)

But even in Pasadena there was hope for the middle classes. The desire for quality craftsmanship and new, higher standards in housing for the masses led to Pasadena’s craze for craftsman bungalows. Known for both quality construction and innovative style, the craftsman represents Pasadena’s most popular approach to domestic architecture.

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