Carmelita: The legacy of Pasadena’s horticultural haven

By Jenny Goodwin

Research assistant, Pasadena Museum of History

Early Pasadena thrived as an agricultural community, where settlers often cultivated beautiful gardens alongside their citrus groves. One of the first and most famous Pasadena gardens was the creation of Mrs. Jeanne Carr, wife of Dr. Ezra Carr, a distinguished physician and professor at the University of Wisconsin.

The Carrs relocated from Wisconsin to Oakland in 1869, first visiting Pasadena in 1876. In 1877, they purchased a 42-acre plot along W. Colorado Boulevard, between S. Orange Grove Boulevard and S. Fair Oaks Avenue, for $3,000.

Jeanne immediately began transforming the weedy terrain into what would become a remarkable garden, and in 1883 constructed a grand home for $7,000. Instead of fences, she installed hedges around the perimeter of the property and named the garden Carmelita. “Carmel,” she said, “means a grove, and I will make it thick here with trees.” By the mid-1880s, Jeanne had cultivated more than 1,000 citrus trees, 200 nut trees, 50 varieties of grapes, and many other trees and exotic plants.

However, financial losses forced her to sell her unprofitable citrus groves and transform her grand home into a boarding house, which was frequented by intellectuals and luminaries. Notable among the Carrs’ friends and boarders were naturalist John Muir, with whom Jeanne corresponded for a quarter-century, offering advice and encouragement for his writings; and Helen Hunt Jackson, who was said to have written a portion of “Ramona,” an immensely popular historical-romantic novel, in a small log cabin on Carmelita’s grounds. This claim, however, was later discredited.

In 1892, worsening finances ultimately forced the Carrs to sell the house and remaining gardens to Simeon G. Reed, an Oregon millionaire, and his wife Amanda. Although Reed intended to preserve the gardens and build a new residence, he died in 1895 before construction could begin. Subsequently, Amanda oversaw the project and lived in the new home until her death in 1904.

Over the following years the property changed hands several times. By 1922, a movement emerged to acquire Carmelita and dedicate it to the City as a public park. An agreement was brokered, and the Reid Home was repurposed as a home base for the Pasadena Art Institute. In 1941, the land was formally bestowed to the City. Over the ensuing years, Carmelita Park served various roles, including housing a Red Cross office and a miniature golf course.

The Reid home and Carmelita Park were leveled in 1968, replaced by what would become the Norton Simon Museum. While the physical remnants have vanished, the spirit of the original Carmelita gardens lives on in the museum’s sculpture garden.

Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of the West Pasadena Resident’s Association newsletter.