INTRODUCTION TO ALTADENA
When people hear the disyllabic sounds, “alta” and “dena,” I would wager that most of them think of the well-known City of Industry-based Alta Dena Dairy, which was started by the three, Missouri-born Stueve Brothers in Monrovia, California in 1945. Oddly, more than five minutes of internet research hadn’t helped me figure out why they named their dairy after a fellow San Gabriel Mountains community located some miles west of their hometown. Nonetheless, I based my map’s “typeface” on their logo.
For a community that’s never bothered incorporating, Altadena seems to have a very strong sense of pride, place, and community. The first time I think I visited Altadena involved walking there from my former workplace in Pasadena. Although my journey involved little more than crossing a freeway, once I arrived I felt as if, proverbially speaking, I was no longer in Kansas.
CHARACTER AND CHARACTERIZATION OF ALTADENA
Undoubtedly part of Altadena‘s unique vibe is owed to its particular racial and ethnic demographics. The population of roughly 43,000 people is 40% white (primarily English and Lebanese), 27% Latino of any race (primarily Mexican), 24% black, and 6% Asian – making it noticeably less Asian, and much more black than most of the San Gabriel Valley. Indeed, it feels very different from most of Los Angeles. Within the community, the vibe varies greatly too. Laid-back, working-class West Altadena feeling worlds rather than miles away from wealthy, woodsy East Altadena, which convincingly enough (for some) routinely stood in for Beverly Hills on the series Beverly Hills, 90210. The foothill neighborhoods swing between eye-searingly dull suburbs and rustic, bohemian, and slightly creepy enclaves.
Like Pasadena, Altadena’s neighbor to the south, most of Altadena is situated on a broad alluvial slope at the mouth of the Crescenta Valley, partially separated from the San Gabriel Valley proper by the Kinneloa Mesa at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in the east and the low, rolling hills of San Marino and South Pasadena to the south. Although it is most often considered to be part of the San Gabriel Valley, it is curiously situated in The Verdugos region by the Los Angeles Times – despite the fact that none of it is located in the Verdugo Mountains or rather, none of the Verdugos are located in it.
To many, Altadena has a reputation as a high crime area. In researching for this blog entry I’ve read descriptions stating that it’s “gang-infested” or “the ghetto.” As with all of Los Angeles, people tend to perpetuate, exaggerate and overstate how dangerous an area is. The average amount of violent crimes reported in Altadena per month is 1.8. Its violent crime rate, therefore, is lower than that of neighborhoods like Chatsworth, Eagle Rock, Silver Lake, West Hollywood and plenty of other places less-often (or never) characterized as “ghetto.” While any and all violent crime is lamentable, fear of it should not factor into one’s exploration and enjoyment of any Los Angeles neighborhood. The sad fact of the matter is that “gang-infested” and “ghetto” are thinly-veiled code words for young, black men and Latinos.
There seems to be a bit of a buzz about Altadena as of late (click here to listen to an “Off-Ramp” segment) and in this episode, I was accompanied by Maryam Hosseinzadeh, who spent a large chunk of her childhood there. It was a hot day and the air was really fragrant. Walking around, I inhaled the scent of huge evergreens. My nose even picked up the scent of a tiny clove cigarette butt lying on the ground.
ALTADENA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
We started our exploration at the Altadena Historical Society, a non-profit founded in 1935 by Mrs. Frederick Marsh. Although at the time the community was only a few decades old, they published their first history in 1938. Today, the society offers lectures on historical subjects, tours of historical sites, and boasts a large collection of fascinating artifacts and materials from Altadena’s surprisingly rich history. ($25 membership buys newsletters, program announcements, and discounts on events. $50 buys all that plus 4 limited edition reproduction vintage postcards of Altadena).
Upon our arrival, we met Sherry Cavallo, an Altadena resident who moved “from out east” some 35 years ago. We also procured an invaluable guide to locals sites of note which we used to determine much of our day’s course. The next place we checked out was accessible from the Historical Society’s parking lot, the Woodbury-Story House. The house was built in 1882 for one of Altadena’s founders, Captain Frederick Woodbury, and his wife, Martha. More on them later. First a bit of history.
ANCIENT AND SPANISH ERAS
For approximately 3,000 years, the area that now makes up Altadena was home to the Tongva. The local village was known as the Hahamog’na. Hahamog’na was the name of the leader of the band the terrotoriy of which was the upper Arroyo Seco area. Hahamog’na encountered the Catalonian Gaspar de Portolá y Rovira on his 1770 overland expedition through the area, a precursor to the Spanish Conquest. The Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was established in 1771 in the Whittier Narrows before relocating to modern day San Gabriel a few years later. Hahamog’na’s lands were stolen by the mission and claimed for Spain. Hahamog’na was converted to Catholicism and re-named “Pascual.”
In 1834, Mexico (including California) gained independence from Spain and the lands that now include Altadena (along with present-day Pasadena, San Pasqual, South Pasadena and parts of San Marino) became part of the 58.29 km2 Rancho el Rincon de San Pascual. It was granted to retired artillery lieutenant Juan Marine by José Figueroa. Marine passed away in 1838 and the land passed to José Pérez and Enrique Sepúlveda. They died in 1841 and 1843, respectively, and the land was granted to Manuel Garfias.
In 1848, following the US’s victory in the Mexican-American War, the old land grants were honored by the victors. Garfias sold off portions of his land to finance the building of his home. By 1858, all of the lands had been purchased by Benjamin Wilson, who in turn sold to John S. Griffin in 1860. Griffin sold a portion to Dr. Benjamin S. Eaton, who developed water sources from the Arroyo Seco and Eaton Canyon later in the decade, allowing for a development he, Griffin and Wilson called the San Pasqual Plantation. The project failed by 1870. In 1873, Wilson negotiated a deal with Daniel Berry, who represented a group from Indiana who founded “The Indiana Colony” in Pasadena. The portion that became Altadena was sold to two brothers from Marshalltown, Iowa — Fredrick and John Woodbury – in 1880. Fred had his mansion – the Woodbury-Story House – built in 1882 and still there today. (It’s been featured in commercials, episodes of shows like Ghost Whisperer, LXD, of and music videos by the likes of Debbie Ryan, Lost Prophets, Nicole Scherzinger, Shwayze, and films like Dark Reel).
EARLY AMERICAN SETTLERS
One of the first homes built in the area was built by Virginia-native Eliza Griffin Johnston‘s on her Fair Oaks Ranch which was constructed in 1862. Englishman Walter Allen established the 502-acre Sphinx Ranch in 1878. His home, despite its historical distinction, was demolished in 1928. In 1882, the Johnstons’ house was moved from to its current location to make way for the construction of the James Crank House ( featured in Catch Me if you Can, Matilda, and Scream 2). The Eastlake-style Lewis Schumann House was built in 1888 for the Coloradan family who’d moved to the area in 1883. Scott and Kay Way moved into a Victorian farmhouse then-surrounded by ten acres of exotic gardens they named “Idle Hour.” Las Casitas Sanatorium was built in 1887 (it became a private home in 1895).
The Mountain View Mortuary & Cemetery was established in 1882 by another early resident, Levi Giddings. Over the years, 14,000 people have been buried there including Charles Richter, Eldridge Cleaver, George Reeves, Octavia Estelle Butler, Wallace Neff, Wilbur Hatch and obviously, many others. On the day of our visit, a scene was being filmed, presumably for a movie, involving an LAPD funeral. Extras in cop uniforms lounged around comfortably and upon passing, we noticed that many of the LAPD cars were painted sloppily and therefore presumably not meant to be filmed in close-up.
THE WOODBURYS AND THE AVENUE OF DEODARS
In 1883, after a trip to Italy, John Woodbury brought Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodar) – indigenous to the Himalayas – to Altadena and had 135 of them planted them along Santa Rosa Avenue (where Woodbury was planning to build his mansion). The work was carried out by a labor force made up of Chinese workers who also lay the open river-rock gutters that line the street. Woodbury abandoned the construction of his home in 1888 when the real estate boom busted.
CHRISTMAS TREE LANE
In 1920, after the trees had matured, one-fourth of the 1.1km stretch was lit for Christmas following the efforts of then-president of the Pasadena chapter of Kiwanis, Frederick Nash and advertised as the “Mile of Christmas Trees.” In 1927, an Altadena chapter of Kiwanis formed and the Avenue of Deodars came to be nicknamed Christmas Tree Street (later Christmas Tree Lane). Over the years, especially in the mid-20th century, Christmas Tree Lane was the subject of many colorized postcards. In 1990 it was listed on the US National Register of Historic Places in 1990 and designated as California Historical Landmark No. 990.
ESTABLISHMENT OF ALTADENA
In 1887, the Woodbury Bros formed the Pasadena Improvement Company and attempted to sell lots of their Woodbury Ranch in a subdivision they called The Woodbury Subdivision –just as the great land boom was about to bust. Earlier, in 1875, a nursery had been established in the foothills by Byron O. Clark, who’d named it Altadena Nursery before moving away. The Woodburys contacted him and he gave them permission to rename their subdivision Altadena.
OWEN BROWN’S GRAVE
Although abolitionist Owen Brown (son of famed abolitionist John Brown) died of pneumonia in Pasadena, he was buried on Altadena’s Little Roundtop Hill near El Prieto Road. A memorial plaque was later added that states: “Owen Brown, Son of John Brown, the Liberator, died Jan. 9, 1889.” The monument also included two iron ornaments meant to represent freedom from slavery. Mysteriously, after the land was purchased by new owners in 2002, they were removed.
Despite the presence of the aforementioned settlers, Altadena’s population was spread out, sparse and devoted primarily to agricultural concerns until a group of mostly Midwestern millionaires began to build mansions along Mariposa in what became nicknamed Millionaire’s Row. One of the earliest to establish a home there was Irish-born Chicago map magnate Andrew McNally and his friend, Colonel George Gill Green – a veteran of the War Between the States and patent medicine entrepreneur. Another printing magnate, William Scripps, moved to Millionaire’s Row from Detroit, Michigan in 1904, to his home known as the Scripps Estate.
The Scripps Estate is a three-story Craftsman-style “Ultimate Bungalow” designed by architect Charles W. Buchanan and built in 1904. In 1979, the home faced the threat of demolition and was saved when purchased by the Pasadena Waldorf School in a deal negotiated by Altadena Heritage. Renamed Scripps Hall, it was was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Scripps also opened The William A. Scripps Home for Aged People in 1913 in a home originally built by one Thaddeus Lowe (more on him in the next paragraph), for his son, Thad Jr. Its name was changed to “The Scripps Home” in 1962. It closed in 2007. All of the facilities except the small Gloria Cottage (built in 1914) were demolished in 2008 by developers and its residents were relocated to facilities in Alhambra. Today the old “Scripps Home” sign hangs at the Altadena Historical Society.
PROFESSOR THADDEUS SOBIESKI COULINCOURT LOWE & the MOUNT LOWE RAILWAY
New Hampshire-born aeronaut, adventurer, scientist, inventor and dreamer, Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Coulincourt Lowe, famously scaled Oak Mountain (bragging he was the first white man to do so), planted an American flag atop it and re-named it Mount Lowe after moving to Los Angeles in 1887. His friend and fellow Altadenan, Andrew McNally, ensured that the new name stuck when his Rand, McNally & Co. maps labeled it Mount Lowe on their maps. Lowe formed the Pasadena & Mt. Wilson Railroad Co. in 1891 with a Canadian-born engineer David J. Macpherson, who’d drawn up plans for a scenic, mountain railroad. Unable to obtain the rights to scale Mount Wilson, the duo turned their sites to Oak Mountain, near Lowe’s new home in Pasadena, where he’d moved in 1890. The first section of the Mount Lowe Railway opened on 4 July 1893. Ultimately the line would grow to include three sections: the Mountain Division, the Great Incline, and the Alpine Division. The Mountain Junction railway station was located at the corner of Lake and Calaveras.
Part 1: The Mountain Division
For the Mountain Division, the railway used a trolley that traveled from Mountain Junction Railway up Lake Avenue before passing through the Poppyfields District and ended in Rubio Canyon, at the base of Echo Mountain. At the Rubio Canyon terminus stood the twelve-room Rubio Pavilion guest house and station.
Part 2: The Great Incline & Echo Mountain
The second stretch of the railway required passengers to transfer from the trolley to a funicular train which took them to the summit of Echo Mountain. At the mountain’s peek there was the 40-room Echo Chalet hospice. In 1894, it was joined by the addition of the eighty-room Victorian Echo Mountain House. Ultimately, the site included an observatory, a casino, a dance-hall, and other structures which came to collectively be known as White City.
Echo Mountain is separated from its neighbors by Las Flores Canyon, Rubio Canyon, and Castle Canyon. Boy Scouts assisted in the development of the mountain by locating “sweet spots” where people yelled for entertainment – in some cases aided by the use of “echophones.” Today, with the train long gone, it’s primarily accessible by the Sam Merrill Trail and a fire road that begins in Millard Canyon.
Part 3: The Alpine Division & Mount Lowe
The third section of the railway opened in 1896. After crossing Los Flores Canyon, rounding the “Cape of Good Hope,” and passing through Millard Canyon and Grand Canyon, the train arrived at Crystal Springs. At this terminus, there was a twelve-room chalet called Ye Alpine Tavern, which had been built in 1895. Mule rides were conducted from there on a trail known as Mount Lowe Eight (for its figure eight shape) and there were tennis courts and a wading pool as well. Mount Lowe is primarily accessible by Chaney Trail as well as a fire road.
The End of Mount Lowe Railway
From the very, start Lowe’s adventure was, in most ways, a disaster. The train operated at a loss from day one. By 1899 Lowe was in receivership to Jared S. Torrance. A whole series of disasters struck over the years to come. The Echo Mountain House was destroyed by fire in 1900. Henry Huntington‘s Pacific Electric Railway took over in 1902. A 1905 fire destroyed more structures. The Rubio Pavilion was destroyed by a flood in 1909. Having lost his fortune, Lowe moved into his daughter’s home in Pasadena and died, aged 80, in 1913 and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery. In 1928, a wind storm felled the observatory. A 1936 fire destroyed the tavern. In 1938 the railway was abandoned and today, all that remains are ruins. Lowe’s life was dramatized in the 1972 Walt Disney miniseries, High Flying Spy, part of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
The last remaining vestige of the lower part of the railway, the Pacific Electric Railway Substation #8, was used for retail from 1942 (after the electrical switching equipment was removed) until 1979. It was restored and repurposed for offices in 1980.
ZANE GREY ESTATE
The large, Mediterranean Revival-style home known as the Zane Grey Estate was originally built in 1907 for a Chicago business machine-manufacturer, Albert Herbert Woodward from designs by Elmer Grey (no relation) and Myron Hunt. In 1918, western author Zane Grey moved to Southern California. Two years later they purchased the Woodward home and made several additions. Grey died in 1939.
ALTADENA TOWN AND COUNTRY CLUB
The Altadena Town and Country Club was formed in 1910 by five members of the Altadena Improvement Association. In 1911, they purchased two acres of a former dairy farm and built a small bungalow-style clubhouse. It was damaged by a storm in 1913 and subsequently enclosed by a new, larger clubhouse. The current building was designed by club member, David A. Ogilvie. It acquired its current name in 1946 when it was reorganized and incorporated as an equity owned member club.
COBB ESTATE — HAUNTED FOREST
At the northern end of Lake Avenue sits the 107-acre Cobb Estate – nicknamed the Haunted Forest. Lumber magnate Charles H. Cobb and his wife, Carrie, had a large, Spanish-style mansion built for them in 1918. Cobb, a Freemason, died in 1939 and his will stipulated that his estate is given to the Scottish Rite Temple in Pasadena. The Freemasons sold it a few years later and it went through a succession of owners over the next few years – including the Sisters of St. Joseph. It was purchased by the Marx Brothers in 1956 but gained notoriety as a hangout for juvenile (and adult) delinquents. In 1959, most of the home was demolished. The Marx Brothers’ estate sold the land in 1971 and local preservationists purchased the land. Sometime later, stories involving the usual cast of KKK members, Satanists, and murdered children began to circulate. In 1978 the gates were deemed sufficiently spooky and were filmed in the movie, Phantasm.
Chicago doctor Henry B. Stehman opened a hospital in Pasadena in 1909, a colony of 17 bungalows, after moving to California to recover from tuberculosis. Shortly thereafter, he and the newly-formed Pasadena Health Camp Association purchased Eugene W. Giddings’ 160-acre vineyard in the hills and named their new hospital La Viña. The help covers operational costs and patient treatment, the hospital raised horses, chickens, turkeys, and cattle; grew orange trees, grapefruit trees, and vineyards and operated its own post office. In turn, they sold eggs, grapes, and milk. A children’s wing was added in 1934. The Las Flores Canyon fire destroyed it all in 1936. A new Myron Hunt-designed building opened on the site in 1937. In its final incarnation, it operated as a respiratory hospital. In 1978, its offices served as those of the Warren County Sanitarium in the film Halloween. In 1992, after a lengthy battle, the La Vina gated-McMansion community replaced Hunt’s building.
Many of Altadena’s historically significant homes were built in the 1910s. Other significant homes from the era include the Frank Keyes House and the Mount Wilson Tollhouse (both constructed in 1911), the Chambliss/Benzinger House (built in 1914), and the Frederick Popenoe House (1919). There’s also a small neighborhood of Craftsman homes dating from the period on the 1900 block of Mar Vista Avenue.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875. The Altadena building was completed in 1920. The esoteric society is supposedly an altruistic one devoted to seeking hidden knowledge but there’s a creepy vibe that made me feel like I’d stepped into a Giallo film – probably just a combination of eerie silence suddenly shattered by the arrival of a noisy flock of ravens.
Ronnie’s Automotive Service is a gas station built in 1920. It’s supposedly been featured in many commercial and movie shoots although all I could find on IMDB was Dodgeball – A True Underdog Story(2004), where it is listed as having been the site of something called “hot girls’ car wash.” I Am Not a Stalker says it also appeared in Crossroads (the Britney Spears one), Clint Eastwood‘s Million Dollar Baby, and Transformers.
The 15 acre Farnsworth Park was purchased by Los Angeles County in 1921 and initially used as a tree nursery. In the 1930s, General Charles S. Farnsworth successfully lobbied to have it turned into a park. In 1934, the impressive, stone William D. Davies Memorial Building was completed by the WPA. The park was named Farnsworth Park in 1939. For the last fifteen years, it has hosted an annual summer concert series.
OLD ALTADENA COMMERCIAL/CIVIC DISTRICT
Between 1924 and 1926, developers LG and MA Collison oversaw the construction of buildings on the 900 block of East Altadena that constituted Altadena’s first commercial district. It later grew to include Altadena’s first fire station, first sheriff station, an architect’s office, a grocery store, and a beauty salon.
Between 1924 and 1926, a number of English-styled cottages were built – largely by Elisha P. Janes — supposedly to attract World War I veterans with a newly acquired taste for the Old World aesthtics. I’ve never been to England so I can’t really say whether or not Janes Village really evokes Albion or not but for those that have but that’s the kind of charming simulacrum that makes Southern California turn.
THE BALIAN HOUSE
The home now known as the Balian House was built in 1922, originally for Burnell Gunther and his mother, Jennie. Its current owner is ice-cream magnate George Balian. Since 1955 the house has been widely known for its increasingly over-the-top Christmas displays which transform the pink Mediterranean into something of a Yuletide playhouse that would turn Pee-Wee Herman’s bow tie green with envy.
LA SOLANA SPANISH REVIVAL NEIGHBORHOOD
On par with the Craftsman neighborhood and Janes Village is the La Solana Spanish Revival neighborhood. The Spanish Revival-style homes designed by B.G Morriss and built by the BO Kendall Company in the 1920s.
THE BOULDER MANOR
Built in 1922, the Boulder Manor was the first home built on Boulder Road as a wedding present for Howard Edgecomb’s wife, Thelma. Its grounds used to also include a stocked, artificial stream.
WEBSTER’S OF ALTADENA
Webster’s is really a complex of connected six buildings and a beloved landmark to locals. The original, central building was originally Bailey’s Drugstore, constructed in 1926, and later purchased by Harold Frank Webster and his brother. After buying out his brothers share he opened Webster’s Soda Fountain. The next building, to the north, was added in 1930. In the past, the six buildings were connected by an open segment wall and operated as separate departments. Sections included Webster’s Liquor Beer & Wine, Webster’s Health Mart Pharmacy, Webster’s Fine Stationers, and Webster’s Shipping & Supplies. At one point there was also a video rental store. Webster’s was featured in at least one episode of The Wonder Years. In 2010, the pharmacy was sold by members of the Webster family to Michael and Meredith Miller, former owners of South Pasadena’s Fair Oaks Pharmacy, who remodeled, reorganized and renamed it Webster’s Community Pharmacy. The rest of Webster’s — including the liquor store, stationers and thrift store are still Webster family operations.
Though born in La Mirada, Andrew McNally’s grandson Wallace Neff began his architectural career in Altadena with his design of the St. Elizabeth of Hungary, completed in 1926. Influenced by the Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial Revival architectural styles, his synthesis came to be known as the California style.
Altadena was formerly served by The Altadena Press, who released their first issue on 21 November 1929. It ran until 1944. A complete set of the papers can be found at the Altadena Historical Society. It was succeeded by The Altadenan, which ran between 1944 till 1977. The Altadena Chronicle was printed from 1977 till 1983. From at least 1936 – 1954 there was also the Altadena Weekly. Beginning in 1922, Paul F. Johnson briefly broadcast Altadena’s only radio station, KGO, from his home (Sagemont).
ALTADENA GOLF GARDENS
Altadena’s first miniature golf course opened in 1930 at the intersection of Lake and Foothill. Live musical accompaniment scored the golfing, broadcast throughout the park. The park closed after just two years of operation. There’s still a remnant of the course, however, behind Lifeline Fellowship Christian Church.
Armenian Jirayr Zorthian immigrated with his family to New Haven, Connecticut. As a teen, he attended Yale‘s school of fine arts. After graduating, he spent part of the 1930s traveling and studying in Africa and Europe. Returning to the US he rose to prominence as a muralist with the WPA — mostly painting in the South and East. During World, War II he designed propaganda posters. After the war’s conclusion, Zorthian and his wife, Betty Williams, moved to Altadena where they bought a 27-acre ranch in the foothills which they named Zorthian Ranch.
After a divorce, Zorthian married his second wife, Dabney, and added an additional 21 acres to their holdings. On the ranch, Zorthian experimented with building techniques, erecting many structures and making sculptures and objects out of found materials. The Zorthians also organized music events and threw parties/bacchanalias for their eclectic assortment of bohemian friends/luminaries (Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Buckminster Fuller, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, John Lautner, John C. Lilly, Richard Feynman, William Saroyan, and others). Charlie Parker recorded a live set at the ranch, released as At Jirayr Zorthian’s Ranch, July 14th, 1952.
Additionally, the ranch has been used as a shooting and filming location. Jirayr passed away in 2004, at 92 years of age. Dabney passed two years later. It’s currently inhabited by one of their five children. Today it hosts an annual New Los Angeles Folk Festival.
ZEKE THE SHIEK
Tim Dundon (aka “Zeke the Shiek” aka “The Guru of Doo Doo” aka “The Sodfather“) was born in Altadena in 1942. His family lived adjacent to Mountain View Cemetery. In his 20s, as a plasterer, he fireproofed buildings. He later got into ironwork… and boxing… and pill-popping (Benzedrine, Secobarbital, Percodan, and more). He raised snakes, had a pet coyote, and hung out at Zorthian Ranch. It was only after dropping acid that he graduated to the so-called “gateway drug,” marijuana. A weed shortage in 1967 led to a new found interest in gardening. Gardening was the gateway to composting. That interest in composting turned into an obsession.
He was arrested in 1985 for cultivation, sales to a narcotics officer and possession of mushrooms with intent to distribute. Out on bail, he was arrested for possession yet again. He defended himself in court as his alter-ego, Zeke the Sheik, and ended up serving eighteen days. In 1990 his huge compost pile (located on land owned by Mountain View Cemetery) burst into flames — bacteria and fungi give off considerable heat as they feast on compost. In 1999, his pile had grown to a height of more than forty feet and he ran afoul of zoning officials. The cemetery was faced with possible fines and the pile was bulldozed. Dundon still lives and composts in Altadena in the Mountain View home that he grew up in. That home is now full of lush vegetation growing from the rich soil and shared with geese, ducks, chickens.
In 1935, Joseph and Julius Nuccio opened Nuccio’s Nurseries in Alhambra and specialized in Azaleas and Camellias, they sell over 600 species of the latter. In 1946 their father, Giulio Nuccio, bought forty acres of land in Altadena at the nursery’s present location. Today it’s managed by Tom and Jim Nuccio.
THE PASADENAN THREAT
As greedy, gourmandizing Pasadena grew, it steadily devoured chunks of its neighbors through annexation. In 1888, South Pasadena incorporated as its own city, protecting it from obliteration. East Pasadena and Altadena never did. Today, East Pasadena has been almost entirely annexed by Pasadena but Altadena, despite never incorporating, successfully fought off the attempted wholesale annexation in 1956 after decades of small annexations. (As a result, Pasadena pulled the plug on Christmas Tree Lane which resulted in the foundation of the Christmas Tree Lane Association in 1957 to take over).
GREGORY AIN TRACT
Ain, Johnson, and Day‘s Park Planned Development was begun on Highview Avenue in 1946. Some people (well, maybe a couple) may know that Gregory Ain is one of my absolute favorite architects (I’ve mentioned Silver Lake‘s 1947 Avenal Cooperative Housing Project and Mar Vista’s 1948 Modernique Homes in previous entries).
CASE STUDY HOUSE #20
Buff, Straub and Hensman‘s Case Study House #20 was built in 1958. The famed USC trio of architects built the residence for the great graphic designer/filmmaker, Saul Bass. The man had an eye for modernist beauty.
Altadena’s first library operated out of a classroom beginning in 1913. The Altadena Library District was formed in 1926. The first structure built specifically to be a library was completed in 1938. The Bob Lucas Memorial Branch Library was built on Lincoln Avenue in 1957. The Main Library was built on Mariposa Avenue in 1967, designed by Boyd Georgi. It is located at the former site of Colonel George G. Green’s home, which was demolished to make way for the library.
ALTADENA IN THE 1970S
As a result of the extension of the 134 and 210 Freeways into Pasadena in the 1960s, and following the desegregation of the Pasadena Unified School District in 1967, much of the area’s white population moved away from the area. Whereas before 1960, the black population had been only 4%. By the 1970s it was much larger, with some neighborhoods having black majorities for the first time in their history. As Altadena went through sometimes tumultuous changes, its sense of community seemed to grow. In 1975, five Altadenans formed the Altadena Town Council. Though it has no legislative or legal authority, it continues to attempt to express consensus opinions of Altadenans to the County of Los Board of Supervisors.
INTERNATIONAL BANANA CLUB MUSEUM
The International Banana Club® Museum opened in 1976 – about 20 years after the Panama Disease devastated the staple (and, I’m told, vastly superior) Gros Michel banana resulting in our now eating slushy, almost-flavorless Cavendish bananas (thanks Science Friday). Anyway, I may dislike the fruit but the museum must love them as the museum has, with over 17,000 pieces, the world’s largest collection of banana-related objects. It’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the world’s largest collection devoted to any one fruit.” Sadly for local bananaphiles, (but a boon to banana-lovers in the Inland Empire), it moved to Hesperia in 2006.
CHARLES WHITE PARK
Charles White Park was dedicated and named for Altadena artist Charles White in 1980 after he died in 1979. White was also well-known for having served as Chairman of the Drawing Department at the Otis Art Institute in the 1960s and ‘70s. From 1980 until the early ‘90s the park hosted the Charles White Memorial Arts Festival. The Altadena Arts Council and White’s son, artist C. Ian White, have recently focused their efforts on trying to bring the festival back.
Altadena got its first town hall in 1991 when a structure originally built as a barn in 1891 (with several additions and re-modelings and a stint as a home) was moved to its current location from its original site at Lake and Sacramento.
ALTADENA FARMER’S MARKET
In February 2011, the Arroyo Time Bank and teamed with Mariposa Creamery owners Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rudicel to host the Altadena Urban Farmers Market at the Zane Grey Estate. I was there to help set up. It was done underground but obviously not very secretly and issue with permits, fees and neighbors resulted in its being shut down not long after. In 2012, the farmers market returned as the Altadena Certified Farmer’s Market returned to Loma Alta Park (right next to the Altadena Community Garden) with necessary permits.
ALTADENA IN FILM & TELEVISION
In addition to the aforementioned television shows and films, there are at least a few other times Altadena has appeared on screen — though often as somewhere else.
On Beverly Hills, 90210, Minnesotan parents Cindy and Jim Walsh moved with their teenage daughter, Brenda, and their 31-year-old son, Brandon to a home in Beverly Hills… which was actually in Altadena (1675 E Altadena Ave). Their friend Dylan McKay moved a couple of doors down the street, to a bungalow at 1605 E Altadena.
Though named after a Valley community with a long-established and large black enclave, Neil LaBute‘s Lakeview Terrace, is based on events that happened in Altadena, concerning John and Mellaine Hamilton, a married couple who were terrorized by an LAPD officer, Irsie Henry. It was, however, mostly filmed in Walnut.
Currently, Kentucky-born director Allison Anders (Gas, Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca, Grace of My Heart, &c ) is planning on filming her next film, The Amorous Humphrey Plugg (named after a Scott Walker song) in her Altadena home.
MUSIC OF ALTADENA
I’m sure there are more musicians from and bands who’ve formed in Altadena – that’s where you, the reader, hopefully, comes in. Maryam pointed me to The Moore Brothers and The Sundowners. The internet pointed to R&B singer Major James.
I also don’t know of any traditional live music venues. As I mentioned, Zorthian Ranch, somewhat regularly hosts musical events. There’s also The Folly Bowl, Susanna Dadd and James Griffith’s backyard amphitheater where they’ve hosted music events and other follies, since at least 2007.
The Underground Art Society is an Altadena art gallery owned by Ben McGinty. Its permanent collection includes works by over 65 artists. They have art show/parties on the first Friday of every month that take place between 7:00 and midnight. McGinty is (or at least, was) also a member of the Altadena Arts Council– established in 2003 and whose Altadena Community Arts Center is located in the Loma Alta School Center.
We did not use the guide to determine our next destination, which was to be lunch. Maryam suggested Oh Happy Days Natural Food and Café. Normally I wouldn’t be opposed to a vegan restaurant but I’d had a great, late night and awoke hungry as a horse and was desirous of something heavy to be washed down with copious amounts of coffee. We tried to go to Fox’s – an old school, family-owned joint that opened in 1955 and is known for breakfast and lunch and homey atmosphere. Unfortunately, they were closed. So we ventured over to Amy’s Patio Café – a gruyere asparagus omelet sounded amazing. Unfortunately for us, they were also closed. Across the street is El Patron, situated in a tiny, triangular building constructed in 1951 that has hosted a succession of eateries including the Echo Café and most recently, CJ’s Wing Café.
My eyes proved to be a bit larger than my stomach and I ordered both a mushroom quesadilla (which, though listed as an appetizer, would’ve been sufficient on its own as a meal) and nopalitos con huevos. I thought the chips and salsa were so-so. The chips, I suspect, were store bought and the tomatoes in the pico de gallo hadn’t ripened sufficiently to the point where discernible flavor had emerged. The other dishes, however, were good and our waitress was great.
Overall, Altadena has a relatively small restaurant scene (and one surprisingly and thankfully short on chains). Other places to grab a bite include Bill’s Chicken, Bulgarini Gelato (which Maryam extolled the virtues of), Coffee Gallery, Dutch Oven Bakery, Everest Restaurant, Fair Oaks Burger, Jim’s Burgers, Little Red Hen Coffee Shop, Mota’s Mexican Food, Pasties By Nancy, Patticakes the Dessert Company, Pizza Joe’s, and Poncitlan Meat Market.
With Altadena extending into the lower San Gabriel Mountains, hiking is one of the best pastimes one can take enjoy in Altadena. The Altadena Crest Trail, Gabrielino Trail, Rubio Canyon Trail, The Sam Merrill Trail, and the Ridgeline Trail all reveal stunning views of the San Gabriel Valley and access places like Millard Canyon Falls, Inspiration Point, the aforementioned ruins of Lowe’s misadventure, and other treasures. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time in our day to hike at all so I look forward to coming back another time.
We did have time to check out Altadena’s “gravity hill” at a bend where East Loma Alta Drive becomes Rubio Canyon Road. Apparently, a school bus full of children drove off the road killing everyone on board and if one puts their car in neutral, the tiny ghosts of the dead children push your car uphill, against gravity. Another explanation is that the various angles of the landscape such as trees, streets, homes, and landscapes interact in such a way as to make it appear that one’s car is rolling uphill when, in fact, it’s rolling down. During our visit, neither youthful ghosts nor landscape angles conspired to make us feel like we were rolling anywhere but down… something I didn’t feel warranted commemoration of with a picture.
DRINKS IN ALTADENA
There are very few places to grab a drink in Altadena. Although not a bar, George’s Drive-In Liquor seems like a popular place to grab some liquor, take it outside, transfer it to a cup and hang out on a heavily-tagged bus bench. We stopped by to grab something non-alcoholic and a group of young men and a woman sipped from their Styrofoam cups, nodding politely and seemingly attempting to appear nonchalant. The liquor store also offers incense in scents including Ghetto Love and Chronic Killer. There’s also Johnny’s Liquor.
It wasn’t until we concluded our day that we decided to go to a bar, forsaking the Altadena Ale House for the only other bar in town, Rancho Bar. Back when I worked in Pasadena, I occasionally headed up to Rancho to join a group of Pasadenan friends. However, it wasn’t until having spent the day exploring the neighborhood that I noticed how much it’s covered with clippings and artifacts about Altadena – like the historical society if it served beer and was packed with regulars. Our bartender was cheerful and her pit bull was friendly.
After waiting a bit, we headed back to our homes. Physically, it’s a short distance between Altadena and Silver Lake but Altadena’s distinct vibe serves as an example of just how much variety is packed into the wonderful Southland of ours.
As always, if you have any helpful tips or additions – please leave them in the comment section. If you have any spam or are a troll, kindly keep that to your sad self.
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34 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Altadena, the Community of the Deodars”
I think this place would have been a good addition to your article. ————————————————————PASADENA NOW – Altadena’s The Coffee Gallery Changes Owners, but the Gallery Backstage Stays On
From STAFF REPORTS
Published : Wednesday, March 23, 2016 | 1:01 PMI think you left out another treasure to be found in Altadena which is The Coffee Gallery Backstage: Altadena’s iconic Coffee Gallery on Lake Avenue has changed ownership after previous owner Julie Sandoval decided to move to another state and sell the building and the business. Bob Stane, who operates the entertainment venue at the back – The Coffee Gallery Backstage – is staying on.
The new owners of the Coffee Gallery are Jimmy and Irene Chen, who can often be seen on the premises.
Florante “Fly” Manglicmot, barista-turned-manager, said today the Chens are doing some renovation work which may take “a couple of months,” but after that, they’ll be relaunching with a new brand of coffee called Counter Culture, and lunch items will be expanded to feature made-to-order sandwiches, salads and daily soup specials.
Ice cream will be Fosselmans, Manglicmot said, and pastry offerings will be moved to an artisanal range.
Gallery Backstage proprietor Bob Stane said his venue will also benefit from some repainting and fixing up. Meantime, Stane expects to remain open to continue featuring his slate of eclectic music shows, as he has been doing seven nights a week since 1998.
Stane has been a well-known show promoter in the area since he started running Pasadena’s The Ice House in 1978.
When he and partner Ken Marshall retired, Stane started putting together shows for folk music groups in the Los Angeles area, and while looking for some rehearsal space, saw the Coffee Gallery, which Marshall originally owned. Marshall was using the backroom as storage space for ceramics.
“Performers play at Birdland in New York, then The Coffee Gallery, then Carnegie Hall, Europe, and back to The Coffee Gallery,” Stane said in a 2013 lecture.
The Coffee Gallery and the Coffee Gallery Backstage are located at 2029 Lake Avenue in Altadena.
Regarding eateries in Altadena , there was no mention of the Little Red Hen on Fair Oaks.
Also, is it true that where the Rose Bowl and Brookside Park sits was called Negro Canyon and was left to the city by its Black owner?
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I added the Little Red Hen Coffee Shop to the blog. I didn’t know about it but it looks great! As for Negro Canyon — I’m not sure. Maybe ask the good folks at the Pasadena Historical Society (http://pasadenahistoricalsociety.org).
Wonderful, comprehensive article. I was a resident for 42 years (since I was 1 year old) and enjoyed your writing immensely. Thank you.
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Aw, thank you so much!
East Altadena has some beautiful homes, I had a brick thrown at me years ago by some brothas north of Muir High, and you wonder why there’s “white flight”. Luckily for me, the brick whizzed about 5 feet over my head, much to the brotha’s chagrin.
Huh. From your tone here I can’t help but wonder whether you were part of the problem.
PS. I don’t think there was white flight because someone threw a brick at your head. Just saying. I lived in Altadena during the post-desegregation years and yes it was a bit tense, but I am so thankful to have grown up with the kind of diversity that most from our generation did not get to experience.
Nice article. Thanks! You got your information wrong on the Town Hall, though. It is a new construction, completed around 2001 or 02, thanks funding from to Supervisor Mike Antonovich. Altadena Historical, Altadena Heritage, the Chamber, Town Hall, and one or two other nonprofits have their offices there. You might also have mentioned the Senior Center. I haven’t had occasion to use it yet but it is an important center for retirees. For places to eat, you forgot Pizza of Venice and on Lincoln, Panda Cafe, a taco place, and Perry’s Joint (although Perry’s might be in Pasadena).
While I’m not 100% sure about the Town Hall, Sheriff’s Department documents show that the first building used by the Town Hall was indeed moved to the site in 1991. The Town Hall later met in the Hawkins House, it seems. I think that you’re thinking of the _current_ (rather than first) meeting site of the Town Hall, the Altadena Community Center, which opened in 2003.
As far as the restaurants that you mentioned, you’re correct that Perry’s Joint is in Pasadena and I didn’t forget Pizza of Venice, as it wouldn’t exist for another two years after I published this piece. I’m also not sure what “Panda Cafe” is as I can find no listing for such a business and “a taco place” is bit to vague for me to mention.
I grew up in Altadena. My father was Harold Franklin Webster as noted in your article. He opened his pharmacy on Lake St. in 1926. He was a friend of Henry Ford through his friend Frank Wiegle who worked for Ford. My dad told me that cars had to go up Lake Street backwards to get to the mountains ( I think to Mt. Lowe ) Next to his store was a small alley to the south and then a hotel and post office. People would rest a day in the hotel before going on up the hill.He bought the hotel and joined the properties , eliminating that small alley. I remember Ford bringing a 3 wheeled car to our house and wanting dad
to invest in it, which he declined to do.
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My wife grew up in Altadena just steps from Eaton Canyon where she spent most of her childhood exploring from sunrise to sunset. We take our kids hiking there now every time we visit.
Just wanted to add to your film & TV citations that Farnsworth Park was the location of the “band camp” scene in American Pie 2.
Also, my great grandfather Russell Ivan Mackley who lived in neighboring Sierra Madre frequently painted landscapes in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, including Altadena. Most of his paintings are in storage now, but if I find any of recognizable Altadena areas, I will photograph them for inclusion in your article.
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That would be great to see the paintings. Cheers!
I grew up just a couple of blocks below the Zorthian Ranch on N. Fair Oaks Ave. As a teen, we used to hike up behind there in the riverbank. My Mom worked at Webster’s and always participated in “Old Fashion Days”. I got transplanted to Alabama in 1967. My mom finally sold that house and moved back here with me in 1994, after my stepdad died. He worked for JPL and was also a free lance photographer, Jim Rayle Photo’s.
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You have a lot of strong ties to that area!
This is an absolutely fascinating article, especially to those of us who grew up in Altadena! I never knew that two of the homes I lived in on Olive had a special history (Janes Village). When I was younger I lived in a canyon and Zorthian’s Ranch was just up the canyon from us. Let me just say he was a very interesting guy and leave it at that! Later I lived just a few blocks from the Balian Mansion. We used to take girls up to Zane Grey Street to make out, we used to go to Cobb Estate to be juvenile delinquents. So many memories at Farnsworth Park. It’s truly amazing how much of Altadena you captured here. Thank you for writing this!
Congratulations on an interesting overview of Altadena. Thanks for posting it. Here is a correction to the comment under the Gregory Ain Tract paragraph:
The caption under the photo of the ultra modern home should read “Highview Avenue” not Highland. They are two distinctly different streets on opposite sides of Altadena. I grew up four doors south of the photo in your blog and was angry when the large orange grove where we chased rabbits and played cops and robbers was bulldozed for what we thought were downright ugly homes. The large trees in the background are on the Scripps property between Mariposa Street and Altadena Drive. My memoir of growing up in Altadena in the 1940s, “Altadena Boyhood” is on file at the Altadena Historical Society office.
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Thanks Richard. I corrected the information (and took the opportunity to fix some grammar and formatting issues to boot). Thanks for your story, too!