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Lost L.A.: An ancient tree, toppled in Pasadena

A towering oak in the middle of Orange Grove Avenue symbolized a time when city planners treasured natural grandeur. Then came the automobile.

February 05, 2011|By Sam Watters, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • In this photo taken circa 1890, an oak tree rises in the middle of Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena. The oak was eventually taken down.
In this photo taken circa 1890, an oak tree rises in the middle of Orange Grove… (UCLA Library Department…)

On a February winter's day in 1913, Joyce Kilmer looked out over his wooded garden in New Jersey and wrote a now-infamous American verse: "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree." Ever since, family, friends and scholars have debated what tree the poet had in mind. Maybe he'd seen this widely published photo of an awesome oak that stood in the middle of Orange Grove Avenue, safe and strong in the Golden State.

"California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence" by Charles Nordhoff was a bestseller in the 19th century, when there was little pleasure and a lot of bad health in American cities. The book lured thousands toward the Pacific, among them a teacher from Indianapolis named Daniel Berry. The heaven on Earth that he and his partners carved out from lands that had been a Spanish ranch became Pasadena.

The prized lots in their new town were along its western border, the Arroyo Seco. They fronted Orange Grove Avenue, named for the orchards that scented the San Gabriel Valley. The street was originally planned as a Parisian boulevard, with flower meridians guiding carriage traffic north to south and south to north. An ancient oak was left growing smack in the middle of this thoroughfare, one among hundreds protected as neighborhoods grew greener with peppers, magnolias, mimosa and eucalyptus planted by a gardening city.

Pasadena was not alone in its tree-centric ways. The founder of Kenilworth outside Chicago bragged that his planned community was in "virgin forest and not a tree has been moved." Oaks and ash stood in streets winding through woods to cozy houses. Later he buried electric and telephone lines to preserve the leafy oasis.

Trees were sacred to Berry and his generation of developers and city managers. Trees purified the air, shaded moms strolling with children, deflected rain and autumn winds. They reduced stress and healed the soul battered by urban life. To the era's landscaping eye, trees gave a street and the houses along it a picturesque, romantic allure. In backyards and public parks, tawny sycamores sheltered songbirds and friends visiting on rustic benches. With Oak Knoll and Fair Oaks avenues, Walnut and Maple streets, Pasadena celebrated the tree in all its variety. Trees were for health, pleasure and residence.

Across America, when streetcars came along, the ax fell on miles of elms, pines and lindens. In protest city reformers organized "tree protector leagues," but no one was slowing progress after the automobile roared into town. Claiming safety hazards and insurance risks, city improvement committees widened avenues. Pasadena followed the times. No tree was stopping Orange Grove millionaires from a wider and grander boulevard to their wider and grander mansions.

By the time Kilmer wrote his elegy to the poetic tree, there was no oak in the middle of Orange Grove.

The cut-and-pave standard still applies. Last month America's paradise moved closer to becoming a treeless Eden. It was an Eli Broad, not an eco Broad, who rolled out plans for his eponymous museum opposite Walt Disney Concert Hall. The presentation at the announcement ceremony made clear that, at least for now, there won't be any majestic oaks shading pedestrians and blocking the view of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro's architectural origami, crouching on a barren pad fronting that windswept, concrete steppe shamelessly called Grand Avenue. The following week, city workers took the arcadia out of Arcadia when they mulched 200 oaks and sycamores to make room for silt and rocks dredged from an aging reservoir. We can land a nuke on the head of a pin but we can't fix a big hole in the ground without stumping a forest?

Trees don't pay their water bills and they don't vote, so some developers and city officials don't care.

Once they did.

Watters' column appears on the first Saturday of every month. For past installments, go to Comments:

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