When high rents, fake noses and endless gridlock make you regret chasing your California dreams, Pasadena will make you feel at home again.
For me, Los Angeles is an itch…unexplainable, uncomfortable, impossible to leave alone. I reckon it’s the tantalizing implication that dreams come true here, if you just hang around long enough, looking good enough.
But waiting for dreams to come true in LA is like waiting for the 5 to start moving. It’s crazy-making, worse for the fact that everyone around you seems to be doing just fine. (It’s a city of actors.)
The city wasn’t without its turbulent times–the building of the 210 freeway set off a rising tide of unrest that culminated in the 1993 Halloween Massacre. But apparently that woke some people up to the need for gentrification. Which, in Pasadena’s case, mostly meant just pointing out what was already there.
Before it was a city, Pasadena was an area for the wealthy to relax. It was warm, bucolic, and fresh-faced. The savvy middle classes, recognizing as they always will that the land of opportunity is wherever the rich take vacations, starting moving out that way shortly after World War I.
At that point, Pasadena had two principal kinds of domestic buildings. There were farmhouses, naturally. And there were bungalows. Inspired by native dwellings in India, the British had been building open-
structured cottages with breezeways, sleeping porches, tiled floors and deep eaves for the purposes of vacation. The same model worked perfectly for the climate of southern California. It also dovetailed beautifully with the American Craftsman aesthetic, which was itself an import from England. This aesthetic demanded simplicity, integrity, inspiration drawn from nature and the native culture.
As a result, you got the California bungalow, updated with arched windows and red tile roofs reminiscent of the Spanish missions. They democratized the area, at least in appearance–which, after all, is what’s most important to Angelenos. The enterprising middle class family could live in a style that looked identical to their wealthy neighbors.
“an innovative, small, single-family, simple but artistic dwelling; inexpensive, easily built, yet at the same time attractive to the new middle-class buyer” —Patricia Poore
In 1908, the Pacific Corporation began marketing Ready-Cut homes, the spiritual predecessor of IKEA furniture–simple, economical, and delivered complete to your parcel of land. Unlike IKEA, this was quality workmanship…because back then, you couldn’t much get away without it. Also, they offered 1800 different design options, so there was no cookie-cutter feel to a block populated with Ready-Cut homes. Apparently, nostalgic househunters in this neck of the woods will ask for walls to be pried open, in order to find the Ready-Cut stamp that proves the house’s historic cachet.
“Simple and affordable, the bungalow itself became part of the California myth.” —Bungalow Heaven
I first met my friends Angie and Sam in their home in Pasadena, on a Sunday afternoon after church. It was a warm day in September. Their front and back doors were open, and a warm pale light was streaming in along with the breeze filtered by the shaggy sycamores that overhung their street.There was an arched recess in their wall fascinated me particularly. Tucked unassuming into the corner of the dining room, it held a heavy rotary telephone and a copy of the LA Times. These days, I reckon, this period detail would anchor a wall in the entryway or family room; it would be rimmed in beadboard, and would feature prominently in a sales sheet as “Craftsman detail.”
But a real Craftsman detail doesn’t ask to be shouted out. It’s just there, where you need it, and lovely, should you choose to notice it.
We ate Sunday dinners in the dining room and I couldn’t take my eyes off it–the telephone nook, I mean. It took me somewhere that, I feared then and still do, doesn’t exist–a place where it doesn’t cost an entire life to be beautiful. A place whose beauty and charm is not a demand to maintain, but an invitation to rest.
I happily spent half the year’s weekends in that house, writing stories in a battered leather club chair flooded with morning sunlight, watching the cat in transit through the open window that admitted the shaggy arm of an azalea bush to brush the keys of the piano. After dark, Sam played the guitar while I drank tea with Angie in the sleeping porch, where again the cat prowled past the leaded transom windows.
Sam and Angie have moved to a different neighborhood, but it seems that inspired domesticity is not exclusive to my memories of their home. It’s native to those streets, with their sheltering overhang of oak trees and their colonnade porches and long front lawns and leaded windows that diffuse inner lights into a welcoming glow at dusk.
Pasasdena was built for proximity to Los Angeles’ driving climate of industry, but crafted to provide sanctuary from it. It’s not meant to make you forget that you live in California, but to help you remember why you do, and give you a moment’s peace to feel grateful again for it. I love it for being probably the least self-conscious of any southern California city. It’s how I began again, proudly, to identify myself as a Californian–freeways and implants be damned.