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A Proper Town : There's More to Pasadena Than the Rose Parade

June 08, 1986|TYRA MEAD | Tyra Mead is executive news editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

Just past the Hill Street off-ramp in downtown Los Angeles, coming up out of Chinatown, California 110 bends to the left and then straightens out for the shot through the four Figueroa Street tunnels. As you drive through the third tunnel, if it's the sort of day that 100 years ago brought people to California for their health, and the air is clean, the sky a dark medium blue, you have a moment to glimpse the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, framed by the concrete arch of the tunnel. This in turn is framed most months of the year by tawny grasses above and the green freeway sign with reflector letters spelling PASADENA. Then you move into the dark of the tunnel and then back out into the sunshine, and you can see the full range of the mountains straight ahead. You are on the Pasadena Freeway, the oldest freeway in California, following the terrain of the Arroyo Seco which, coming down from the San Gabriels, the northern boundary of the city of Pasadena, defined that 100-year-old city's first western edge.

Eight or 10 minutes later, traffic permitting, you are in Pasadena proper, a world away from Los Angeles and the Westside and East L.A. "Some people swear by Malibu," says one longtime Pasadena resident, "and probably the air is cleaner, but it's just Coast Highway with little developments spotted along. And if you only look straight up in Pasadena, then the smog never bothers you." The smog is no doubt the city's worst rap, a longstanding trouble that is largely the result of those tremendous, obstinate mountains. The city's name is also firmly linked to "Rose Bowl" and "Rose Parade." But at the heart of Pasadena proper are universities, museums and libraries, architecture, gardens and trees. The smog is a drifter, shapeless, a visitor who entered without knocking.

Pasadena is a proper town: tree-lined streets and California bungalows, the comfortable Mission Revival-style Playhouse (the official state theater) and the grander Spanish and Italian Renaissance architecture of City Hall, the Public Library and Civic Auditorium. The cool logic of all of these becomes apparent on a hot day--of which there are many.

On a late spring afternoon, for example, the lacy arch of the camphor trees lining Madison Avenue between Glenarm and Fillmore sheltered the sidewalks and lawns, holding off the heat, the shade complete but not as dense and compact as that cast by the magnolias farther up the street. The bark of the camphor is a pleasant, whitish gray, interrupted by bits of beige, with deep vertical troughs every inch or so; the short, solid base spreads into numerous secondary trunks that rise upward and outward, sometimes taking a quirky horizontal turn; the leaves are a light, bright, fresh green. The camphor's spread is broad enough that the leaves of trees on opposite sides of even the widest residential streets will meet midway. "It's a great tree for Pasadena," claims a prejudiced homeowner who has planted two in his own yard.

Pasadena has the largest concentration anywhere of homes designed and built by early 20th-Century architects Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene. One of the finest, the Gamble House, is owned jointly by the city and USC, but the rest are mostly private residences. Simple pairs of clinker-brick pillars mark driveway entrances. Retaining walls fashioned from rough boulders and brick edge carefully maintained lawns. Showy displays of wealth and social standing are un-Pasadenan.

"Nobody is trying to be ostentatious," says an architect-resident. "A lot of people try to downplay their position."

And, though the meticulous grace of the work of the brothers Greene--the polished woods, the Oriental influence, the Tiffany lamp fixtures, the sleeping porches, the exquisite joinery, the sinuous designs in reddish, blackish clinker bricks, the angled downspouts that weather blue- green--was, at its most elaborate, affordable only to moneyed clients, the smallest cottage has its pillars of stone, its glass-and-wood door. There's a boulder retaining wall, with a bench for resting built into it, in front of a few undistinguished bungalows on Alpine. The dark, cool interior of a bungalow, large or small, like the elegant camphors, will shelter any who enter from the glare of the sun.

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