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Leading modern lives inside a grand antique

August 21, 2003|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

There are castles in the air, castles in the sand. And there is Castle Green, which is not really a castle either, but a fantastic folly created from the imagination of a Victorian architect with a penchant for Arabesque opulence.

Frederick L. Roehrig designed Pasadena's Castle Green in 1898 as a lavish winter resort for rich East-Coast revelers. The imposing Moorish-style structure is redolent with atmosphere, from its cylindrical turrets to its ornate cornices. You have to stop and remind yourself that this is no longer a grand turn-of-the-century hotel, but condominiums.

Artists, writers, movie producers, musicians and architects are among those who now claim the castle as their own. Its quirkiest and most famous feature -- a second-floor turret at the end of a bridge, which reaches across the grounds to Raymond Avenue -- is the studio of painter R. Kenton Nelson. In another turret, two stories up, graphics designer Jim Marrin has transformed his one-bedroom unit into a showcase for his Arts and Crafts furnishings. On the fifth floor, Jan Cady has winnowed down her secondhand finds to fit neatly into a tiny studio.

The building, under constant renovation since the mid-1990s, serves as the perfect stage for the creative whims of characters who share a love of old things.

In the evenings, residents hang out on the roof, lounging on colorful wicker chairs lugged to the Castle from flea markets at the Rose Bowl and Pasadena City College. From the top of this building, they can see the tips of high-rises in downtown Los Angeles, while to the north they have a panoramic view of the San Gabriel Mountains.

"I'm really on top of the world here," said Nelson, 49, who has produced two New Yorker covers this year from Castle Green. "This has got to be the best space in all of Pasadena."

It's also one of the hardest to get into. Units rarely come on the market. When they do, a one-bedroom can sell for more than $500,000. The handful of rentals in the 52-unit building start at $1,200 for a 450-square-foot unit and rise to $2,000 a month for a three-room unit.

Nor is it a particularly easy place to live: The plumbing is old, the units can be sweltering in summer and fuses can blow if you turn on your hair dryer while the laptop is running. To do laundry, you have to travel down a hand-operated elevator to the basement where, legend has it, a ghost hangs out.

On top of all that, the residents govern the building. Just try getting a group of free spirits to agree. "The lunatics are running the asylum," Nelson quipped.

Even so, it's worth it to be there.

From Nelson's studio windows, he can see every aspect of the mustard-colored monolith: red-tiled roofs, wrought-iron balconies, loggias, domes, arches, pillars, verandas.

Growing up in Pasadena, he would often drive past the building and wonder who lived there. Four years ago, he decided to purchase a small space on the first floor as his home away from home, a place where he could paint during the day. But, during the afternoons, the east-facing unit became too dark.

When the building's bright, airy turret at the end of the truncated bridge became available two years ago, Nelson decided to move his easel into the octagon-shaped room. Like many parts of the castle, however, the area was dilapidated. In fact, half the bridge, which connected the castle to another building across the street, had been demolished decades ago. Nelson spent $4,000 stripping paint off the century-old window sills and plastering over huge gaps in the walls.

Transformed, the turret stands on four columns, hovering one story above the sidewalk like a luxurious treehouse. On a recent weekday morning, you could hear jazz playing from Nelson's studio halfway up the block. Inside, the artist was working on a painting of a woman in a vintage bathing suit.

Like most of Nelson's work, the piece depicts life in mid-20th century America, using deeply saturated colors to transform everyday scenes into something dynamic and powerful. Nelson himself seems to have stepped out of the past. He uses words like "splendid" and "gee whiz." His studio is decorated with utilitarian items circa 1950: a metal desk with a pockmarked Formica surface, a vintage dentist's cabinet. An old medical table provides the perfect place to mix paint.

On a table under one of the windows, Nelson has carefully arranged a collection of old hose nozzles, finding beauty in the practical. "They really are amazing little machines."

Nelson keeps only a few of his paintings in his studio; most have been sent off to galleries around the country, where they sell for more than $10,000 each. Here, he decorates his walls largely with the work of other people, many of them anonymous. Near his easel is an unsigned painting of a dark-haired woman. He spotted it while browsing in a thrift shop with his wife, Tessa. When he went back to buy it, the painting was gone. Six months later, Tessa presented it to him on his birthday.

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