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The Jewel in the Crown City's Crown

December 18, 1985|MIV SCHAAF

Several years ago I was telling Mrs. Fontaine, who lived in the bungalow next door, what I had heard about a house up the street, that its original cobblestone chimney had been replaced by a brick one. "Who told you that?" she demanded.

"Mr. Wright over on Arbor."

She laughed in scorn. "Why he's a newcomer."

"He is? I thought he'd lived here a long time."

"Heavens no. Only been here 25 years."

That gave me some indications of how time is reckoned by Pasadena standards; it seemed probable that I would never acquire old Pasadena stature no matter how fond of it I was.

Yesterday it was again made clear to me that after 17 years I am still a Pasadena newcomer. Christie Balvin asked me to lunch; she is the one who got out the word on the closing of the Pasadena Huntington-Sheraton, a most successful (as far as coverage goes) public-relations event. That is the reason she called me; it was altogether too successful. Absolutely everyone knows that the architecturally glorious Huntington-Sheraton is closed. There is a big wire fence around it, it looks abandoned and it is most depressing to drive up to the front of it.

Absolutely no one knows (except old Pasadenans) that the Pasadena Huntington-Sheraton Hotel is still open. When it first opened in 1907 the roof leaked and the hotel was promptly closed. Henry Huntington, living down below it in what is now the Huntington Library and Gardens, got sick and tired of looking at it, all barren and empty, looming over his house and in exasperation bought it, fixed it up and opened it in 1913.

So the main hotel building is closed. But the newer 1965 annex, called the Lanai, the one facing the Olympic swimming pool where Sammy Lee practiced his high dives from the Picture Bridge, is still open for business, all 87 rooms of it and so are all the 20 guest cottages (built in from 1907 on) surrounding the famous Japanese gardens of the hotel.

I don't know why they're called cottages--some are two- and three-story houses--except their adzed beam ceilings, inglenook fireplaces and storybook charm do make them feel cottagey. They're owned by the hotel and were and are used by visiting artists coming to Pasadena or Los Angeles for concerts. If you timed your visits right, you might have heard Horowitz or Victor Borge practicing piano, or Bing Crosby or Dale Evans and Roy Rogers singing, to say nothing of Einstein figuring formulas or Elizabeth Arden powdering her nose.

Other cottages are rented by the month, often by executives transferred from the East while they hunt for a house. And not a few have been permanent homes for Pasadena people; one is a 30-year resident. The cottage I visited was built for and lived in by Stephen Royce, former manager of the hotel. Its dining room is very small; Royce made it a point to be seen in the main hotel dining rooms for lunch and dinner.

And what is this cottage at the back of the hotel? A former cottage but now the Tap Room. "You remember the old Tap Room in the hotel," said Balvin. "We've moved it over here."

"You mean the Ship Room," I said. "We used to have drinks or dinners there sometimes."

"No, the Tap Room, across from the Ship Room. It was always a kind of retreat for old Pasadena people and we've brought it over here. See--remember the old etched glass door?"

I did not remember the old etched glass door because I had never been to the old Tap Room. I did not know it existed. Why, one night, I practically shouted to Balvin, after we had eaten at the Ship Room, I said to Alfred, "Let's see what else is here behind all these doors," and we went traipsing up every corridor, hall and alleyway, opening every door we could. We saw kitchens, empty banquet rooms, laundry chutes, broom closets, but we never saw any Tap Room. Never. No how. How well old Pasadena hides itself.

Anyway, I was in the new Tap Room admiring its fireplace, its air of accustomed comfort, the kind of unpretentious comfort only old wealth seems to achieve; it had that unmistakable flavor of old Pasadena. Behind it is a gift shop, moved over from the hotel and, along with an amazing assortment of Rose Parade-associated pins, were large Save the Huntington-Sheraton buttons.

I hope the old part of the big hotel opens up again--how can such a powerful symbol of Pasadena pride be allowed to die?--but it's nice to know you can still stay at the Huntington-Sheraton (of course old Pasadena has always called it simply "The Huntington") and who knows, maybe some afternoon be able to hear Yo Yo Ma or Lynn Harrell practicing.

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