The new Old Pasadena may just bowl you over

PASADENA Once, not really all that long ago, the thought of staging a high-end food tour of hip restaurants in Old Pasadena would have amounted to little more than an exercise in fast food.

As in, get your food fast and get the heck out, if you were brave enough to come at all.

Old Pasadena, a prewar civic hub and architectural marvel, had by the early 1980s long since gone from a leafy center of commerce to a garden of earthly blight, its bleak, crumbling buildings oozing decay, its businesses shifted to the Lake District, its families down to the Arroyo, if they could afford it, or off to other San Gabriel Valley cities. Wrecking balls were poised, and developers with blueprints for skyscrapers lurked, awaiting a clean slate.

But by the time, six years ago, that the city’s convention and visitors bureau approached Lisa Scalia, a valley native who runs the Melting Pot Food Tours in Los Angeles, to include Old Pasadena as one of her destinations for touristic foodies, the neighborhood had been transformed, utterly, from seedy to scintillating. And they did it through preservation rather than demolition – proving, perhaps, that gentrification need not necessarily be a pernicious enterprise.

Where squalor and neglect once reigned, now pricey chain retail stores rub shoulders with distinctive mom-and-pop shops in restored 100-year-old brick and stucco buildings that radiate charm. Where empty storefronts once stuck out like missing teeth, now bistros, taquerias and cafes vie for space among the suddenly coveted addresses along Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. Dare we say that Old Town, as locals call it, has become hip?

“When I grew up there, it was skid rows, prostitutes and drug dealers,” Scalia recalled, not at all wistfully, “and now it’s this huge attraction. We’ve got nine stops on a 31/2-hour food tour, and people just love it. Part of the tour is telling how Pasadena saved itself. It’s really an incredible story.”

A glimpse of what Old Town might have become can be found at its northwestern border, where a 20-plus-story skyscraper, ringed by boxy offshoot buildings, looms. It’s the corporate headquarters for Parsons Engineering, erected in the late 1970s. Had it not been for the advocacy group Pasadena Heritage, Old Town might be little more than acres of cubicle farms, Scalia says.

She likes to save the part about how the preservation-loving populace of Pasadena beat back redevelopment until late in the tour, after the group already has sampled everything from Peruvian empanadas at Choza Mama to falafels at Father Nature, from sipping wine at Everson Royce to tasting olive oil at Beyond the Olive. She’ll have them stand in the courtyard at One Colorado, a thematic joining of 17 one-story original brick buildings whose facades were saved even while their insides were gutted. She’ll point above the Crate and Barrel logo to the faded sign for the erstwhile Clunes Theater, Pasadena’s first movie house, circa 1911.

Then she’ll have them look down at the ground.

“They took such great pains to preserve the granite blocks in the drainage channels, originally for the horses,” Scalia said. “You walk right over it. It’s amazing to think that this whole area, with all the architectural integrity and history and culture, might have been lost.”

Perhaps it’s not so surprising, after all, that Old Pasadena was saved. It’s difficult to think of another Southern California city more steeped in history than Pasadena, whether it’s the Rose Bowl and concomitant Tournament of Roses Parade, or the gorgeous rows of 100-year-old bungalows that represented the height of the Craftsman style of home design, or the stately, no-longer-crumbling 100-year-old Colorado Street bridge, or the paintings by the Old Masters at the Norton Simon Museum, or venerable Vromans bookstore (started in 1894), Southern California’s oldest and largest independent bookstore.

No surprise, too, that antiques hunters flock to Pasadena for rare gems – the Los Angeles Times, matter of fact, says Pasadena and South Pasadena vintage stores provide the go-to places for “Mad Men” set decorators – even lining Fair Oaks Avenue a block deep to gain entrance into the Huntington Collection’s monthly blowout sale.

If it’s possible to commodify nostalgia, Pasadena has achieved it without coming off as too pretentious. It may be a tad too self-conscious of its place in Southern California lore – 28 spots in town have places on the National Historic Registry, and you can’t walk 10 feet in Old Town without seeing a bronze plaque, and even the local Trader Joe’s boasts being the chain’s original spot – but perhaps it’s merely pride of place. And, in Southern California, long criticized by outsiders for its lack of a sense of the past, it’s refreshing that there’s a place where history is steeped like a tea bag.

Old and new intermingle

On the ground floor of Castle Green, the 113-year-old Mediterranean Revival building featuring arresting grand arches and ornate porticos that once was a playground for wealthy East Coasters who “summered” out West, is a bridal shop.

The historic 50,800-square-foot Braley Building on Raymond Avenue, once a thriving bicycle factory, now is the home for the Church of Scientology, Pasadena.

What once was the old Del Mar train station now is La Grande Orange Cafe, purveyors of haute cuisine, and the old train station luggage room is, well, The Luggage Room, a fancy pizza joint and bar.

In all, there are more than 20 blocks, 152 buildings and 22 alleys in Old Town alone that have been designated historic. That many of these historic buildings, especially along Colorado Boulevard, now house chain stores or specialty boutiques that cater to many a wealthy person’s whims does not really faze locals. Many, after all, remember the pre-gentrification days.

“I’ve been here eight years, and there’s lots of trendy bakeries and coffee shops, like this one,” said resident Rebecca Wright, sitting on the patio one sunny morning at The Market on Holly, a bistro, with her toddler and a friend. “That’s reason to come. We aren’t in Old Town as frequently as younger people at night (for clubs), but my husband and I have a lot of options for date nights. And we appreciate it’s not all chains.”

One block over, on Union Street, is the antithesis of a chain store. It’s called Gold Bug, and it’s a melding of avant garde art gallery, boutique and “cabinet of natural history curiosities” that defies easy explanation. It defies any explanation at all from its owner, who refused to give his name (Stacey Coleman, by the way, according to a Los Angeles Times store profile) and seemed more willing to rail against the corporatization of Old Town than talk about his business. Too bad, because his gallery boasts some fascinating pieces, such as embellished vintage cabinet cards, bronzed hawk feet and citrine crystals that “open the inner doors to increased clarity of thought (and) enhanced will.”

“I moved here and opened (in 2008) for a sense of community, safety and cleanliness, and now it’s become a walking mall of chain stores,” he said, lamenting that he has to stare at the hulking facade of the Container Store out his front window every day. “A lot of the ma and pa stores are getting pushed out.”

Down Fair Oaks Avenue a way is the Soap Kitchen, another quirky, one-of-a-kind boutique whose owner, Dali Yu, seems just fine co-existing with big retailers. Like Gold Bug, the Soap Kitchen provides items the chains don’t – in Yu’s case, handmade soaps cooked in a kitchen right on the premises using natural ingredients such as lemon grass, ginger, olive oil, oatmeal and clove. She also differentiates her business from others with her laid-back style, which includes her cocker spaniel mix, Shea Butter, greeting customers at the door.

“It’s not cheap (in Old Town), but we’ve been here 10 years,” she said. “The (chains) bring people that otherwise wouldn’t know about me, so I’m fine with them. Old Town is perfect for us because people who shop here care about things that are natural and handmade.”

Not old, vintage

Before Old Town’s emergence as a retail powerhouse, the neighborhood featured a spate of antique sshops, vast showrooms of vintage furniture and clothing, and curios of a much higher quality that those found at the Saturday Rose Bowl flea market.

The antiques shops survive and continue to do a steady business. Only now, they’ve been pushed south on Fair Oaks Avenue out of Old Town proper.

Little matter. Amy Wells, the set decorator for “Mad Men,” told the Los Angeles Times that the two-story Pasadena Antique Center has everything from “Victorian to Art Deco, Hollywood Regency (to) Palm Springs Modern.”

Customer Jann Ulf, of San Marino, featuring a “Duck Dynasty”-style beard and cowboy hat, says he makes the rounds at antiques stores on Fair Oaks Avenue and South Pasadena’s Mission Street weekly. Never know what gem will turn up or when a valuable item will be reduced in price. He likes to tell about an ornate antique cello case, partially carved from fine wood by artisans in Chicago, that he saw for $1,800.

“I don’t really need a case,” he said, “but I figured it might be valuable to Yo-Yo Ma or somebody. Nine months go by, and the price is lowered to $1,500. I wasn’t ready. I eventually offered $500. He says, $700 if I buy it today. I say, no, and I wait. Two weeks later, it’s now at $1,200. I offer $700. So I picked it up. It’s a dance, you see. I got a deal.

“You want a real deal? Go to the Huntington Collection. It’s mostly stuff from well-to-do people who die and donate their stuff to the (Huntington) hospital. These are people from San Marino and Pasadena with money, lots of money. Expensive stuff.”

That may be putting it a mite gauchely, but it’s true: Wealthy donors do turn over parts of their estate to the hospital so items can be sold to benefit the Senior Care Network. Betty McInnes, the collection’s assistant manager, has been around since the antiques center’s beginning in 1984 and attests to its popularity.

“The last week of the month (sales), either on Thursday or Saturdays, it’s crazy,” she said. “People start lining up early.”

Why? According to the collection’s appraiser, Babs Stewart, “Every day I go out in the field and pick up some wonderful pieces, just beautiful.”

Pasadena’s glamour gulch

To really catch a glimpse of high style, you must go down into Arroyo Seco, “The Arroyo,” to locals.

There, you’ll see the neighbor known on the National Historic Registry as “Bungalow Heaven,” a series of late 19th and early 20th century Craftsman Revivals. But the star attraction is the Gamble House, the epitome of the American Craftsman movement, built in 1908 by the Greene brothers for Proctor & Gamble soap magnate David Gamble and wife Mary as a summer home far removed from their Cincinnati manse.

The 90-minute tour of the architecture is well worth the time even for those who confuse Frank Lloyd Wright with Orville and Wilbur Wright. Every beam and joist is cataloged by type of wood and dissected for its aesthetics and functionality to show, in the words of docent Gary Lowe, that “natural materials and craftsmanship was a response to the Industrial Revolution and a move away from Victorian design.”

From the amber-hued art glass in the front hallway to the teak beams, intricately patterned redwood frieze and warm cedar and oak that graced the bedrooms, the house is not just a National Historic Landmark, it’s a Pasadena treasure.

Which is why, when one of David Gamble’s descendants came close to selling the house in the early 1960s, only to find that the buyer planned to paint all of that lovely interior wood ceiling and walls a stark white, the house was taken off the market and eventually signed over to the University of Southern California for safekeeping.

Yet another close call for Pasadena history.