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Pasadena's Secret Garden Delights Visitors

Closed since 1997, the 34-acre campus is still impeccably groomed. A housing development plan is in the works.

June 13, 2002|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A half block from the intersection of Colorado and Orange Grove boulevards, the launching point of the Rose Parade, is Pasadena's secret garden: the sprawling grounds of the former Ambassador College campus.

Hidden behind a row of stately old homes and condos along Orange Grove Boulevard, the elaborate gardens and the 100-year-old mansions catch visitors by surprise:

Enter off West Green Street, and fragrant, drooping branches of giant deodar cedars mingle with the outstretched arms of century-old native oaks. The reflecting pool and towering Egret Fountain of the Ambassador Auditorium rise on the east. The "great lawn" spans nine acres, bisected by a rock-lined stream that tumbles into koi ponds and a garden pool. An enormous Moreton Bay fig tree stands like a green mountain near the middle.

A Mediterranean villa sits atop the western slope, next to an English Tudor and an Italian renaissance mansion, which was once home to one of Pasadena's most celebrated millionaires.

"I had no idea this was here or what it was," said Gloria Cabrales, 52, of South Pasadena, who discovered the gardens two years ago. "I keep coming back--the water, the trees, the peacefulness. I enjoy it so much. But is this supposed to be a college? Where are the students? There is never anyone here."

The almost complete absence of people on the 34-acre grounds, which is owned by the Worldwide Church of God, has created a mysterious air on the campus since it closed in 1990. Although the place is all but deserted, the gardens remain impeccably groomed, with running fountains and streams. Shrubs are trimmed. Empty sidewalks are lined with scented star jasmine. Empty benches under giant shade trees are kept clean. Lawns are edged, and the thick grass is devoid of footprints.

Church officials say preserving their gardens and campus mansions has been a 55-year-old "labor of love" that since the mid-90s has cost about $2 million a year to maintain. Grounds Manager Ron Grassman, who has a degree in agriculture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was attracted to the gardens 30 years ago, when he saw the stone-lined streams in church literature.

"I had no idea they were man-made until I got here," he said. Grassman is in charge of a strict pruning, mowing, irrigation and fertilizing regimen. No mildew on his crepe myrtle watch. A tightly pruned Japanese boxwood is the key to a precisely terraced garden. A little blue dye in pond water keeps the algae away.

"It's all so beautiful; it just makes you wonder what it was like to live here back then," said a 24-year-old Monrovia woman, on a Sunday morning stroll with her parents.

On a balmy day, when running water and bird songs are the only sounds, it's hard to believe the future of this paradise is so uncertain.

The property has been the subject of debate in Pasadena for nearly three years. A housing project of 1,700 units over 48 acres was working its way through City Hall when developer Legacy Partners abandoned its effort in April amid delays and community opposition. Legacy had agreed in 1999 to buy the entire campus after the city approved its plan.

Now the church says it will develop the site, using the former Legacy plan as its blueprint. The church expects to announce a development partner in weeks.

Most of the gardens and the historic mansions will be preserved, said Bernard W. Schnippert, the church's director of finance and planning. But instead of college students, the grounds will now be maintained for the owners of the new luxury condos and million-dollar homes. The future of the long-closed Ambassador Auditorium, considered one of the finest concert halls in Southern California, will also be decided in the plan.

"The good news is that so far the gardens have been recognized and everyone is trying to keep much of its history intact," said Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage.

Whatever the future, it won't be the site's first make-over.

The history of the mansion now known as Merritt House began in 1903. That year, Hulett C. Merritt, investment banker, builder of railways, multimillionaire at age 29 and reputedly the largest stockholder in U.S. Steel, bought 2 1/2 acres of prime real estate along South Orange Grove Boulevard. It was known then as "Millionaires Row," named for the mansions being built by some of America's wealthiest industrialists.

Merritt built the 16-room, two-story Italian renaissance mansion, filled it with art and parked the first domestic-made car in Pasadena in its driveway. Leading up to the house is a long terraced staircase flanked by 22 columnar Italian Cypress trees, each 60 feet tall.

After Merritt's death in 1956, the house was sold to Ambassador College and was remade into the home economics department, kitchen and all.

In its next life, it is slated to become the community center for condo owners. Two other mansions might be transformed into bed-and-breakfast establishments.

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