The most dominant architectural form of the last few decades has been the anonymous glass- and granite-sheathed office tower, straining in size and style to mark a corporate presence while often overwhelming its site and city.
It was not always that way. For centuries, the church, with its glorious spire reaching to the heavens, was the most prominent man-made structure. Then in the 19th Century came the Industrial Revolution with its feats of engineering: Bridges, factories and railroad terminals became the new local focal points.
In the first few decades of this century, as an outgrowth of the so-called City Beautiful movement, public architecture came to the fore, with the design of such civic projects as city halls and libraries dominating the design scene and prompting considerable local pride.
One of the best examples of the movement is the Pasadena Civic Center, clustered north of Colorado Boulevard around the Pasadena City Hall, at 100 N. Garfield Ave. Walking the broad, tree-shaded streets and touring the stately structures there, one can sense the spirit of a more genteel time.
The center was developed in the 1920s according to a design fashioned by a planning firm headed by Edward Bennett of Chicago, who had been a protege of Daniel Burnham, a leading proponent of the City Beautiful movement.
In keeping with the movement's preference for classical styling in the Beaux Arts tradition, the design called for a major east-west axis along Holly Street and a minor north-south axis along Garfield Avenue. The ends of the axes would be closed with prominent public structures focusing in on a center marked by an imposing city hall.
Much of the plan was built, including in 1927 a city hall even more imposing than Bennett had hoped. Designed by John Bakewell and Arthur Brown, who a decade earlier had fashioned a robust city hall for San Francisco, the Pasadena concoction was a marvelous Beaux Arts rendition of a Mediterranean-style mansion, topped like a wedding cake with a Spanish Baroque dome.
Happily, the Pasadena City Hall perseveres, as do most of the other public structures that distinguish the civic center. These include the public library at 285 E. Walnut St., a nicely detailed Spanish Renaissance-style structure designed in 1927 by Myron Hunt and H. C. Chambers; and the post office, at the northwest corner of Garfield Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. The latter was designed in an Italian Renaissance style in 1913 by Oscar Wenderoth, with a respectful addition in 1938 by Martson and Maybury.
Also built in the 1920s and of note within the center is a YWCA on Holly Street, designed by Julia Morgan; the First Baptist Church on Marengo Avenue by Carleton Winslow and Frederick Kennedy; and the All Saints Episcopal Church on Euclid Avenue, by the firm of Johnson, Kaufman, and Coate.
In keeping with the center plan, the Italian Renaissance-style civic auditorium designed by Edwin Bergstrom in 1932 was sited on Green Street. It was to serve as the south anchor of the Garfield Avenue axis, with the north anchor the library. The concept held for nearly 50 years, until the Plaza Pasadena shopping mall was built on Colorado Boulevard blocking the view of City Hall with an awkward arch.
Now a national landmark, the civic center will be on display today in tours beginning in the courtyard of City Hall and conducted by the city's cultural-heritage commissioners and docents of Pasadena Heritage, a nonprofit preservationist group. The fee for the tours, which start at 9, 9:30 and 10 a.m., is $5 for the public and $4 for Pasadena Heritage members. If you miss the tour, call Pasadena Heritage at (818) 793-0617 for information about future tours.
Out of that era of civic pride and cultural aspirations also came the Pasadena Playhouse at 39 S. El Molino Ave. Designed by Elmer Grey in a fanciful mock Mediterranean style, it opened in 1925, closed in 1968, opened again in 1979, was restored in 1984 and, thanks to continued local support, is thriving as both a national landmark and a theater.
(There are no tours, but tickets are available to the playhouse's present offering of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves." In this way, one gets to both experience a landmark and see a play.)
To experience an interesting combination of old and new Pasadena, opening Monday in the Crown City Glass Building at 54 W. Colorado Blvd. is an exhibit entitled "Under Construction" sponsored by the Art Center College of Design. The exhibit of student art celebrates the recent renovation of the 1897 structure by architect Peter de Bretteville for the Art Center. Admission is free for the exhibit, which will be open Mondays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until June 12.
For something even a little more dated than the Crown City building, there is Carroll Avenue, a delightful cluster of well-preserved Victorian-style homes in Angelino Heights northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Like the Pasadena Civic Center, the block also is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it's a delight.
Today and Sunday the homes will be on display beginning at 10 a.m. for the annual tour sponsored by the Carroll Avenue Restoration Foundation. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased at 1300 Carroll Ave.