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Town Is in a Time Warp, and That's Just Fine : Sierra Madre: Foothill village provides sense of community, historical homes and retreat from concrete and congestion.

October 09, 1994|LISA HALLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While Sierra Madre was once dubbed "Nature's Sanitarium" by easterners who came there in the late 1800s believing the climate could help speed their recovery from respiratory diseases, the city has taken on another kind of curative power in recent years.

A hamlet (population: 10,800) in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Sierra Madre is an antidote for strip mall and hip-weary Southern Californians looking for a wholesome, small-town atmosphere in which Beaver Cleaver would have felt at home.

"It's funny, people come into my office and ask, 'Where am I? This looks like the 1950s,' " said Judy Webb-Martin, owner of Webb-Martin Realty in Sierra Madre. "This town hasn't moved much beyond that and people just love it."

That time-warp atmosphere attracted John and Marlene Borger when they got re-routed during Rose Parade traffic a few years ago and found themselves in Sierra Madre.

"I wondered where we were," Marlene Borger said. "I felt like we were in a little alcove away from everything." Six months later, when the couple, who lived in Santa Clarita, decided to look for something closer to their jobs in Pasadena and Chino, they remembered Sierra Madre.

Not long into their househunting the Borgers found "a cute little dream house" for $215,500. Built in 1947, the two-bedroom, one-bath house had 950 square feet. The couple added 400 square feet and spruced up things with new paint, landscaping and French doors. "It was kind of a little box when we bought it," said Marlene Borger, "But it's no Plain Jane now."

Sierra Madre lies northeast of Pasadena, north of Arcadia and west of Monrovia. It is bounded by Michillinda Avenue on the west, Orange Grove Avenue on the south and Santa Anita Avenue on the east.

The northeastern part of the city--known as "The Canyon"--provides access to the Mt. Wilson hiking trail and offers residents seclusion from noise and traffic. The canyon has long been known as a haven for creative types.

Sierra Madre's housing prices range from $200,000 to $1 million with the average price at $310,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath home with 1,600 square feet.

Most of the city's 4,000 homes are custom built, Webb-Martin said, and modest bungalows and stately mini-mansions may share the same street.

In an advertisement from 1887 luring easterners to Sierra Madre, the city was said to have a view of neighboring cities below, "...while vessels can be counted on the Pacific Ocean, 30 miles away."

When newlyweds Phyllis and Edward Chapman left a bad winter in upstate New York to visit relatives in Pasadena in the early 1950s, they decided to set roots. "I stood on Baldwin Avenue, looked up at the mountains and thought, 'My goodness, if we lived here, we'd be on vacation all year round,' " recalled Phyllis Chapman, who is the town historian.

The Champmans bought a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch-style house for about $13,000. They have since added on, and Chapman estimates the house is worth about $320,000.

Residents like Chapman take pride in the preservation of the city's landmarks and older homes, which date back as far as 1881.

Two groups, the Cultural Heritage Commission and the Historic Preservation Society, perpetuate the city's history and traditions, including an annual entry in the Tournament of Roses Parade and its wisteria vine, listed in the 1990 "Guinness Book of World Records" as the world's largest blossoming plant. The vine attracts visitors during its blossoming season every March and recently celebrated its centennial.

Founded and developed by Massachusetts native Nathanial Carter in 1874, Sierra Madre was an agricultural community until the Pacific Electric Railway made it possible for workers to commute to Los Angeles. Carter, who made his fortune in the garment and travel industries, came to Sierra Madre for his health and later brought his family with him.

In 1881, he purchased the 1,103-acre Sierra Madre Tract of Rancho Santa Anita, 845 of those acres from his friend Elias J. (Lucky) Baldwin, and subdivided the land. His own estate, Carterhia, was on a view lot of 103 acres.

Although the city experienced somewhat of a boom in 1886-88 and many of those old gems remain, there is no predominant period when houses were built, said realtor Webb-Martin. So too do architectural styles vary.

Besides historic Victorians and big, old farm houses, there are a mishmash of Craftsman, cabin-like hideaways, Spanish and ranch-style houses, along with some multi-family units.

Notable architects plied their trade in Sierra Madre, including Greene and Greene, Samuel and Joseph Cather Newsom, Richard Neutra, Irving Gill and Wallace Neff. More than 75 structures are historical landmarks, such as the Victorian-style Sierra Vista Hotel built by Joseph Newsom in 1887 and the Barlow Villa, a replica of the Michelangelo-designed Villa Collazzi, built by Neff in 1927.

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