About 100 years ago, someone began building a flimsy little store by laying boards on the ground near a railroad stop midway between Los Angeles and Pasadena.
The single-board walls that rose from this mudsill gradually listed and wobbled as the wood foundation rotted.
The building that is now known as the Meridian Iron Works clearly was not built to last 100 years. That it still stands on the same spot is a testimonial to luck, the South Pasadena Cultural Heritage Commission, the city and lots of money.
Luck started in the very beginning when the unknown builder used sturdy redwood and fashioned the storefront in a quaint, classic Victorian design. Ensuing occupants first installed horizontal, then vertical siding that strengthened the building's skimpy walls.
Historic preservationists consider it lucky, too, that much of South Pasadena's original business district is still intact and the object of strong civic pride. The district, centered at Mission Street and Meridian Avenue and covering several blocks, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Meridian Iron Works is the oldest building in the district and was designated a historic landmark in 1972. When its owners wanted to sell it in 1982, the city borrowed $125,000 from Los Angeles County to buy it. City historian Margaret Fay praises the South Pasadena Cultural Heritage Commission for insisting that the building be saved and renovated and for pursuing federal grants.
The Meridian Iron Works is in the proposed path of the Long Beach Freeway through South Pasadena, but City Manager John Bernardi said this was not an issue with the Department of Housing and Urban Development when it awarded the federal grants.
The Meridian Route, opposed by South Pasadena residents for more than 20 years but approved by the California Department of Transportation in 1984, slices through the historic business district. However, a variation suggested by Caltrans this April places the route two blocks west of Meridian Avenue, avoiding many of the old buildings, including the Iron Works.
Bernardi figures that about $210,000 in grant money has been poured into the small building. The city paid off the loan from the county and paid architect Robert Tryon about $12,000 for directing the restoration. The rest of the money went into construction costs.
"Our primary concern was to keep it from falling over," Tryon said. "We jacked it up, removed the interior siding, built conventional stud walls, then lowered it onto a concrete foundation and rewalled the interior siding."
"We held our breath and hoped it wouldn't collapse," Bernardi said. "All we could do was hope and pray. You couldn't put a bowling ball in it and not have it roll to one corner or another."
During the renovation process, layers of wallpaper were stripped off to reveal old newspapers, including a page of the Los Angeles Daily Herald dated 1886.
From such discoveries and from old photos and records, Fay has been able to put together a somewhat spotty history of the building.
In 1905, the Women's Improvement Assn. paid for construction of the stone watering trough that forms an island in front of the building on Meridian Avenue, she said. Railroad tracks that once ran in front of the building were rerouted behind it, and the Santa Fe Railroad built a station beside it.
Tryon, whose home and architectural firm are in South Pasadena, said that the building's original color was white. He said that it has served as a restaurant and a church, and the words "meat market" were found painted on one side.
"I've been told that when it was first a store, upstairs there were fancy ladies who hung out of the windows when the trains came in," Fay said.
The building may also have been a jail, Bernardi said.
In the 1940s it was a bicycle shop, Fay said, and later the building's owners, Raymond and Flora Mowrer, leased it to the Meridian Iron Works, which used it as a foundry and painted its name across the front.
Eventually, the city bought the structure and, after an investment of more than $200,000, found found it had a public building with no designated purpose.
"That created something of a problem for me," said architect Tryon. "My instructions were to just keep it from falling down. I didn't know what I was designing it for."
"Well, we did wonder a little about what to do with it," Bernardi said.
And then came another stroke of luck. The South Pasadena Preservation Foundation offered to turn it into a local museum and to staff it with volunteers.
"Perfect," Fay said.