Heritage: A Short History of Pasadena

Person Riding in an Open Car

The land now famous for the Tournament of Roses, the Rose Bowl, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and California Institute of Technology, was once occupied by the Hahamogna Tribe of Native Americans. Subsisting on local game and vegetation, the Hahamognas lived in villages scattered along the Arroyo Seco and the canyons from the mountains down to the South Pasadena area. With the arrival of the Spaniards and the establishment of the San Gabriel Mission on September 8, 1771, most of the Native Americans were converted and provided labor for the mission.

The San Gabriel Mission, the fourth in California, grew to be prosperous, with abundant orchards, vineyards and herds. The vast lands which it administered for the Spanish Crown were divided into ranchos. After the rule of missions, California passed from Spain to Mexico, the Mexican government in 1833 secularized the mission lands and awarded them to individuals.

Pasadena San Gabriel Mission

The northeast corner of San Gabriel Mission, consisting of the 14,000 acres known as Rancho el Rincon de San Pascual, had previously been gifted in 1826 by the padres to Doña Eulalia Pérez de Guillen, noted for her advanced age as well as her devoted service to the mission.

On February 18, 1835, it was formally granted by the Mexican government to her husband, Don Juan Mariné. He and his sons subsequently lost the land which changed ownership a few more times before being granted on November 28, 1843, by Governor Manuel Micheltorena to his good friend, Colonel Manuel Garfias, son of a distinguished Mexican family.

In 1852, two years after California was admitted as a state to the Union, Garfias built an adobe hacienda on the east bank of the Arroyo, where he and his family proceeded to live in grand style, until he could not meet the interest payment due on a loan. Title to the land was then transferred in 1859 to his lenders, Dr. John S. Griffin and Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson. Portions of the Rancho San Pasqual were thereafter sold, leaving Griffin and Wilson with 5,328 acres in 1873.

Check out the tabs below for historical details on various periods in Pasadena history!

Pasadena’s Becomes a City: 1886-1920

Incline Railway

In 1886 Pasadena incorporated, largely as a measure to rid the city of its saloon. In the ensuing decade, amenities such as sewers, paved streets, and electric street lighting were installed. On January 1, 1890, the Valley Hunt Club initiated a mid-winter festival with a procession of flower-bedecked horses and carriages. This became a yearly tradition that in 1898 was formally sponsored by the Tournament of Roses Association. An added tourist attraction was the Echo Mountain incline railway which opened in 1893 and included a mountain chalet resort and the Alpine Tavern at Crystal Springs.

The cultural and educational side of the city was Throop Polytechnic Institute not neglected. The educational system expanded in both the public and private sector. Throop Polytechnic Institute (first named Throop University) was founded in 1891 and later became the California Institute of Technology.

Throop Polytechnic Institute

Pasadena had a Shakespeare Club and a Grand Opera House (never very successful) and numerous civic and cultural organizations.In the early 1900’s more grand hotels were built. The city government was reorganized and in 1901 Pasadena became a charter city with an elected mayor. The city population grew from 9,117 in 1900 to 30,291 by 1910. The population included Chinese and Mexicans, who were brought in to work on the railroads, and Blacks, who moved in and started small businesses or worked as servants in the big houses and hotels. The area of the city increased through annexations, first of sections to the north and east, then in 1914 San Rafael Heights and Linda Vista, which had been physically linked to the city by the Colorado Street Bridge in 1913. Some of the best architects settled in Pasadena, which became known for its fine architecture, particularly the Craftsman style, perfected by Greene and Greene.

Pasadena’s Golden Age: 1920-1930

Pacific Asia Museum

Through the end of the 1920’s, Pasadena continued to enjoy a reputation as a tourist center and winter resort for the wealthy. The city had much to offer culturally. The Pasadena Community Playhouse was incorporated in 1917 and moved to the new Pasadena Playhouse in 1925. A 100-inch telescope was installed atop Mt. Wilson under the direction of Dr. George Ellery Hale in 1917. The Pasadena City Junior College District was created in 1924. The Grace Nicholson Gallery (which became the Pasadena Art Institute in 1943 and is now the Pacific Asia Museum) was completed in 1926 and the Pasadena Civic Symphony Orchestra and Civic Chorus was founded by Tuesday Musicale in 1929.

Pasadena Playhouse 1925

The city government, which changed to the Pasadena Playhouse 1925 Board of Directors/City Manager structure in 1921, expanded municipal facilities. The Rose Bowl stadium and Brookside Park recreation facility were built. A 1923 city bond issue financed the construction of a handsome Civic Center, consisting of the Central Library (opened on February 12, 1927), City Hall (opened on December 27, 1927) and the Civic Auditorium (which opened in 1932).

Pasadena Endures The Depresssion and War: 1930-1950

Paving Arroyo Seco

The Depression signaled the end of an era for Pasadena, disrupting its tourist economy which never resumed at its previous level. The number of industrial establishments, which numbered only 159 in 1929, decreased even further to 83 in 1933. In 1930, the city population was 76,086. Ten years later it had increased by less than 8% to 81,864. Despite this, a 1939 study conducted by Dr. Edward Thorndike of Columbia University on the general goodness of life in U.S. cities rated Pasadena as the best city of all in which to live.

World War II ushered in a turnabout, and set Pasadena on the path to modern industrial growth. During the war, hotels in Pasadena were used as military command headquarters. The Vista del Arroyo Hotel was purchased by the Army and became a convalescent hospital for the wounded. Led by Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which became focal points of research and development for the war effort, Pasadena evolved into a center for industrial research and light manufacture of scientific and electronic precision instruments. By 1954 there were 394 industrial establishments in Pasadena.

The completion in 1940 of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the first freeway in the west, provided a fast and direct route from Pasadena to Los Angeles. Pasadena became an attractive place to live for people working in industrial areas in Los Angeles. In the postwar boom, newcomers flocked to Pasadena.

Pasadena Faces the Challenge: 1950-1970

By 1950 the population was 104,777, including a significant increase in the Black population (from 3,900 in 1940 to 7,800 in 1950). In the mid-’40’s and early ’50’s, to relieve the housing shortage, new housing tracks were opened in the Linda Vista, San Rafael and Allendale areas and to the east in the Hastings Ranch and Coronet areas. Retail sales showed a steady increase and in 1947 the opening of Bullock’s heralded what was to become an exclusive shopping area on South Lake Avenue. A new shopping center opened in Hastings Ranch in 1956.

With growth came problems. The city once famed for its salubrious climate was now inundated with smog. As the business district moved east of Fair Oaks and Colorado, the area that was once the heart of the city became dilapidated, with high vacancy rates and declining property values. In much of the city’s pre-1929 housing, middle income families moved out and low income families moved in. Minority populations were heavily concentrated in the older sections of the city. The early ’60’s saw some major companies leave Pasadena due to lack of land for expansion. Although the problem of central city decline was pointed out in a major report in 1959, little was done to remedy it until the early seventies. An April 27, 1969 Los Angeles Times article on Pasadena was entitled “Pasadena’s Crown City Image Tarnished: White Flight, Urban Blight, School Problems.”

Norton Simon Museum

The year of 1969 marked the opening of the Pasadena Art Museum of Modern Art (now the Norton Simon Museum of Art) and the closure of the renowned Pasadena Playhouse, sold at auction after years of financial difficulties. Plans for the Foothill and Long Beach Freeways, which would link Pasadena to major arteries on the east, west and south were underway, removing parcels of land from the tax rolls as well as low-priced housing occupied by minorities, the elderly and low-income families.The seventies were a period of economic revitalization, primarily under direction of the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency. Large corporations relocated their headquarters to Pasadena, the Conference Center was built, and the Plaza Pasadena retail shopping mall was completed. Millions of square feet of office space were created, as well as many new condominium projects and commercial buildings.

Pasadena Seeks to Balance Growth & Preservation: 1970-Present

With growth and new development came concern for preserving the unique quality of life in Pasadena. Neighborhood and preservation groups joined forces in 1981 to defeat a proposal to build two high-rise towers in downtown Pasadena. That same year, the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency was disbanded. A citizen initiative to restrict growth was passed in 1989. It was later repealed by voters in 1992, in conjunction with revising the General Plan to respond to growth management issues.

Modern Old Town Pasadena

An awakened respect for the city’s architectural treasures led to the renovation of historic homes and buildings throughout the city. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Old Pasadena, where the city’s business district first started. Revitalization of this area occurred throughout the eighties, and culminated at the end of 1992 with the completion of the One Colorado historic block. Transformed into a restaurant and entertainment center, Old Pasadena has become a major attraction in Southern California.In the eighties, population growth accompanied development. Between 1980 and 1990, the population of Pasadena increased by 11%, becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. The largest increase was in the Hispanic population, which grew to 27.3% of the total city population by 1990. A charter amendment, approved by voters in 1980, changed Pasadena’s election system from citywide runoffs to district only elections. This paved the way for the election of minority candidates and a greater emphasis on neighborhood concerns. In 1993, the name for Pasadena’s elected representatives was officially changed from Board of Directors, a term associated with corporations, to City Council, a term prevalent in most city governments. A mayor was selected on a rotating basis from the senior City Councilmembers. The City Manager, however, was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the City. And in 1998, Cynthia Kurtz become Pasadena’s first female City Manager. The same year voters decided it was time to elect a Mayor who could represent Pasadena on a city-wide basis. A former city Councilmember, Bill Bogaard was elected in 1999.

In 1994, the Northridge earthquake, the most severe quake in a series to hit Southern California, left Pasadena relatively unscathed. The finial atop City Hall’s dome was knocked askew and several residential chimneys were damaged. The world’s leader in seismic research, the California Institute of Technology was consulted frequently during this time by the media.

Between 1970 and 2005, Caltech’s faculty and alumni garnered 14 of the Institute’s 31 Nobel prizes. The most recent award went to Robert H. Grubbs in 2005 in chemistry, along with Yves Chauvin (Institut Français du Pétrole) and Richard R. Schrock (MIT), for their work in the development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis. Perhaps best known for its research in physics, the Institute’s faculty and alumni have also received Nobel Prizes in the fields of Physiology or Medicine, Economics and Peace.

Mars Rover

Caltech’s satellite laboratory, The Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), was responsible for several of NASA’s successes in the 1980s and 1990s including deep space navigation and communication, digital image processing, intelligent automated systems, and microelectronics. Despite recent set backs in the loss of the Mars probe Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander, it is the memory of the Mars Pathfinder Mission that still remains fresh in the minds of many. In July of 1997, the world was able to watch as Rover, a robot on four wheels with a camera and extendable arms, moved over the surface of the red planet. The robot took photographs, collected rock and soil samples and transmitted scientific data back to the earth. Rover lasted considerably longer than it was originally designed before it fell silent in September 1997.

Colorado Bridge

As Pasadena looks toward the future it seeks to balance growth with community needs, historic character, a diverse economic base, and a safe, healthy family community. The Colorado Street Bridge, designed in 1913 as a “work of art” and renovated in the early 90’s to conform with seismic safety standards, symbolizes the commitment of Pasadena to integrate its rich cultural heritage with the challenges of the new millennium.The Pasadena Public Library has an extensive collection of materials about Pasadena in the Pasadena Centennial Room at Central Library.

All photographs courtesy of the Pasadena Public Library unless otherwise noted.