California Fool’s Gold — Exploring San Marino

California Fool's Gold

San Marino is located in the San Gabriel Valley and is neighbored by Pasadena and San Pasqual to the north, East Pasadena and East San Gabriel to the east, Alhambra and San Gabriel to the south, and South Pasadena to the east.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of San Marino, available in art prints and on a variety of merchandise

San Marino is a tiny, affluent city nestled in the San Gabriel Valley which comes in at number 48 on the list of America’s least-affordable places to live.  Its homes were mostly built in the second quarter of the 20th century and are in a fairly wide variety of styles — some are actually pretty low key. Monterey Park may’ve been envisioned as the “Beverly Hills of East L.A.” by its planners, but surely San Marino has more right to the comparison than other Easterly cities and neighborhoods.

San Marino has often, on television and film, subbed as the West Side, East Coast, or just a nice, anonymous neighborhood in such timeless, Hollywood classics as Mr & Mrs. Smith,  Monster-In-Law,  One Hour Photo, American Wedding, Men In Black II;  and television episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the Office, The West Wing and Alias. Despite the fact that in films and television it is used to portray genteel, white neighborhoods, in reality most of the population is Taiwanese or Chinese American, which is why people jokingly refer to it as “Chan Marino” (thanks to Ngoc for that tidbit). The population is currently 47% Asian (mostly Taiwanese and Chinese), 44% white (mostly English) and 5% Latino.

“Gridlock” in downtown San Marino

Although Father Of the Bride was set in San Marino, it was filmed, oddly, in Pasadena. I used to walk around San Marino and fantasize that I’d befriend a kindly, rich, old couple (or single person) who’d entrust me with their home after their passing. It really has some of the loveliest homes around Southern California with a distinct absence of hideous McMansions that tell you its inhabitants are mostly the very old-moneyed. Notice MTV’s Cribs was not in the list of shows filmed there.

The newly completed Chinese garden at the Huntington

San Marino is also home to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. The library houses 6.5 million manuscripts, including a lot of important books, like the Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer. It has famous paintings like Thomas Gainsborough‘s Blue Boy and Thomas Lawrence‘s Pinkie. It’s also got a lot of William Morris‘s things too.

The Gardens surrounding Huntington’s former digs cover 120 acres and are divided into the Australian Garden, the Desert Garden, the Herb Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, the Subtropical Garden, and the Chinese Garden… just to name a few. There’s also an indoor rain forest, cloud forest, and a peat bog which rather smells. Since they’re pretty amazing, the gardens are frequently used as filming locations.

Footage shot there has been included in Mame, dynamic Downey duo The Carpenters‘ music video for “Only Yesterday,” the final scene of the underrated Beverly Hills Ninja, Mystery Men, Charlie’s Angels, The Wedding Planner, The Hot Chick, S1m0ne, Anger Management, Intolerable Cruelty, Starsky & Hutch, Memoirs of a Geisha, National Treasure-Book of Secrets, CSI: Miami, and Serenity.

The Edwin Hubble House is also located in San Marino. Hubble was a Missourian (there’s a stretch of I-44 named after him… oh yeah, and some expensive, myopic telescope) who proved the existence of galaxies beyond our own, discovered an asteroid, and a bunch of other stuff. When he died in the 1950s there was no funeral and what happened to his body is a mystery.

El Molino Viejo

El Molino Viejo is the oldest commercial building in Southern California surrounded by a modest but pretty nice garden. It was built around 1816 to grind corn and wheat for Mission San Gabriel. Now it hosts art exhibitions, summer concerts and tours. Enslaved Tongva built the structure and operated the mill under the direction of one super-freaky father, Jose Maria Zalvidea. He was known for his liberal lashings with a metal-tipped lash which he doled out not only to the slaves but also to himself. He also wore a belt with inwardly-directed spikes. Kind of makes you question the body-piercing set’s commitment to masochism. A year after Mexican independence some new mill was built and the one pictured above became what is is today known as El Molino Viejo.

Lacy Park

Lacy Park, formerly Wilson Lake, dried up because of San Marino’s famously thirsty local populace. It’s free on weekdays and pretty much creepily empty with the occasional, unsupervised kid riding a training wheels-assisted bike past the curtained van which seems to always be parked on the north side.

Oh, and before you say “croquet” just know that there are no hard balls permitted, nor remote control toys, nor alcohol, grill-outs, loud music of any kind, no hip-hop at any volume (unless it’s Kanye or Black Eyed Peas), no norteño, ranchera, cumbia, or reggaeton. The rules go on and on and on! They had to add a second sign beneath the first one. No firearms. No kidding!

The Rose Arbor is on the Western edge of the park. Pretty sweet, huh?

Support Eric Brightwell on Patreon

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

17 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring San Marino

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