It’s hard to imagine the city of Pasadena without its rustic brick facades, historic alleyways and tree-lined streets of tucked-in craftsman bungalows, but those details might well have been paved over if it weren’t for Pasadena Heritage fighting passionately to preserve the past for 40 years.
From the demolition of historic homes and properties to the 710 Freeway expansion plan, the nonprofit organization has grown to stand as the backbone of the city’s eclectic architectural history.
Although it formed as an official nonprofit organization in 1977, it really began in the years prior as a group of concerned citizens who saw threats to the old, traditional city monuments. The coalition was part of a nationwide sentiment at the time, starting on the East Coast, as a push back to the massive industrialization and rapidly changing city-scape across the country.
“Without Pasadena Heritage, life in our city would be a very different place, significantly different,” said one founding board member Bill Ellinger, an archeologist and current historical architect.
Ellinger was part of the initial group of citizens who became active in preservation, taking interest when he returned from doing excavations abroad for several years in the Middle East in the mid-1970s.
“While I was away, there were various landmarks that had suddenly disappeared to make way for the 210 Freeway — suddenly Pasadena had changed greatly in that regard,” he recalled.
The group organized to become a vocal, persistent voice in the community, and now in its 40th anniversary year, Pasadena Heritage boasts of more than 2,000 members from 890 households, 300 active volunteers, six permanent staff members and a permanent office housed in the Madison House, an 1897 Victorian home that was bequeathed to the organization.
Pasadena also has achieved recognition on a national level for its achievements in historic preservation — a victory owed greatly to Pasadena Heritage, Mayor Terry Tornek said at the group’s most recent meeting, noting that he often uses the illustration of old Pasadena.
In the 1980s, the old town district had become dilapidated and fallen into disrepair, and the city was in favor of its total demolition. Pasadena Heritage worked diligently to save it, and now as a National Register Historic District, it’s a bustling shopping and dining destination.
“The government at the time really thought we should scrap it … but the people rose up and prevailed,” he said. “[Pasadena Heritage] is the conscience of the city when it comes to preservation. They keep the city honest, and make sure the development is compatible with the traditional qualities that also make us love Pasadena.”
Pasadena Heritage is often consulted by the city’s planning and development department, and also by private builders looking to upgrade or renovate a potentially historic property.
But while the group’s persistence has earned it a “seat at the table,” as Ellinger noted, other members still feel very much on the fringes of current development.
“I still feel we are very much on the battle lines sometimes,” said Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, who began at the organization in its infancy as a volunteer.
Current battles at stake include the “mansionization” of neighborhoods. With development in high gear, especially in older residential areas, more builders tear down and expand existing homes when the price of land exceeds the value of the current structures, which can greatly change a neighborhood’s landscape.
The expansion plan of the 710 Freeway is also on the books, as well as the recent proposals by Caltrans to construct two six-mile-long freeway tunnels, which will impact some of Pasadena’s oldest neighborhoods. Pasadena Heritage has vehemently opposed the nearly 50-yearlong saga of the plan and its impact on the city. The group also intends to discuss the sale of more than 400 properties, owned by Caltrans, many of which are historic homes with long-term residents.
Those are just two of many issues to be addressed at the group’s new and upcoming “parlor talks,” a new series of informal discussions about key preservation topics to be held at Pasadena Heritage’s headquarters. There, the group will also help provide “grass-roots advocacy” and teach citizens what can be done if they feel a neighborhood’s character is being threatened.
Mossman notes that although being part of Pasadena Heritage sometimes feels like “being a thorn in the side,” of those pushing to build and change, her position at the organization — where she has worked since 1979 — is greatly satisfying.
She has seen the city put ordinances in place to protect the historic detailing of what many now see as the city’s architectural jewels.
One such property is the Robert Blacker House, built by the renowned architect firm of Greene and Greene for a retired Michigan lumberman in 1907.
The house was Mossman’s favorite landmark from back when she and her husband were just students, touring around Pasadena.
“I just fell in love with that house long before I even knew what it was or what it represented,” said Mossman, who would often drive around Pasadena and admire the houses as a form of free entertainment.
But over the years, the house fell into disrepair and the new buyer — an investor from Texas, who never planned to live in the home — bought it and began stripping it of all its grand, antique details to sell separately around the country to the highest bidder.
“It really broke my heart,” Mossman recalled, saying that despite the organization’s efforts to stop the stripping, it was fruitless. “There was nothing in the law to stop them.”
However, the group’s protests and the negative press the house received persuaded the city to pass protection ordinances on Greene and Greene homes, guaranteeing that design features remain on future sold properties.
Eventually, new buyers came in and restored the Blacker House to its full grandeur, searching and finding the old design details online.
“In the end it was a real success story … it’s just magnificent now,” she notes.
Like Moss, other Pasadena Heritage staff and members have taken the preservation victories in stride; always bracing for the next battle.
“I would like to think we are representing a voice in the community,” said Patty Judy, the education director for Pasadena Heritage. “We are standing up for the voiceless, which is historic architecture. I think our job is to remind people that ‘this place matters.’”