Now it has a new claim to fame: It's the Southland's only wealthy residential community that hasn't seen home values decline in the housing slump.
San Marino recorded its highest annual median home price ever last year, topping $1.5 million — up 1.6% from the previous year, according to MDA DataQuick. By comparison, Beverly Hills' 90210 ZIP Code has seen its median price tumble 18.6% from the peak in 2008, and Malibu home values are down 28.4% from 2007.
Of the 20 Southland communities with the richest property values, San Marino is the only one whose home prices have continued to improve year over year, MDA DataQuick numbers show.
Credit goes in part to San Marino's acclaimed schools, its stock of mansions with curb appeal and its small-town ambience. But it also has something else going for it, real estate experts say: an influx of money from Asian home buyers and investors.
"If you go to mainland China and someone asks, 'Where do you live?,' San Marino represents that you are wealthy," said YanYan Zhang, a real estate agent whose clients include overseas buyers looking for homes here.
The San Gabriel Valley has an estimated population of 2 million, about a quarter of whom are Asian American, census data shows. Cities including Alhambra, Monterey Park, Temple City and Arcadia also draw significant numbers of Chinese buyers.
San Marino, however, is considered the most prestigious address, representing the ultimate move-up choice among Asian homebuyers. That's given extra pricing power to home sellers in this 4-square-mile city; none of San Marino's neighboring cities have managed to escape the downdraft.
"People will stretch to buy here," said Linda Chang, the top sales agent in Coldwell Banker's San Marino office. The four schools in the San Marino Unified School District consistently rank among the state's best.
Once predominantly white — it was home for a time to the right-wing John Birch Society's West Coast office — San Marino started changing dramatically in the 1990s, said USC demographer Dowell Myers. Now the population of about 12,750 is more than 50% of Asian heritage, primarily Chinese, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.
About 75% of the homes sold last year in San Marino went to people with Asian surnames, up from about half the homes sold there in 2005, according to information from MDA DataQuick.
Asian businesses started taking hold in the San Gabriel Valley in the late 1970s when a developer began buying up property in Monterey Park to create an area that attracted Chinese families and businesses. Other business investment followed, some spurred by the mainland takeover of Hong Kong. Housing purchases were close behind.
Real estate agents market U.S. homes overseas through Chinese language websites, including WindhamChina.com and PropGoLuxury.com, and publications such as the Chinese Real Estate News, which is distributed in China.
"I advertise in it," said Zhang, who works out of Rodeo Realty's Beverly Hills office and covers areas including San Marino, Pasadena and Bel-Air.
On a recent trip to Beijing she discovered that her ad had drawn attention.
"'We saw your picture on the newspaper,' my old friends said," Zhang recounted.
She travels to China every couple of months to meet potential clients and get referrals. "It's all about lots of business connections."
Many of her clients are Chinese Americans who have spent the last decade overseas establishing themselves in business and are bringing the money back to the place where they grew up. Add to this Chinese population and economic growth, plus government restrictions on home purchases in some big cities in China, and it's not surprising that buyers are looking for a solid spot on U.S. soil.
One other indication of San Marino's appeal is interest by investors.
The share of absentee buyers annually in San Marino peaked in 2005 at 17%, and today the number is about 10%, more than double the rate in 2000, according to MDA DataQuick. Chinese buyers want San Marino homes as investment properties, Zhang said.
Some international buyers are seeking a base in the U.S. rather than a full-time residence, Chang said. Among her clients is "a Hong Kong buyer who just comes once a year," she said.
Chang, who bought in San Marino in the mid-1970s, was among the first Asians to move into the community. That the Hawaii-born agent still lives in San Marino some 35 years later speaks to another reason home values have remained buoyant during the housing bust: There is little turnover.
"It's old families, old money, new owners and international money," she said.
Some people keep their homes for a quarter-century or more, said Sotheby's agent Boyd Smith, whose territory includes San Marino and Pasadena. "This is not a transient community."
The housing slump has been felt in the number of San Marino transactions — down by a third from five years ago. Consequently, competition can be intense. "I sold a home for $6 million in one week last year," Chang said.
"It all goes back to supply and demand," Smith said. "Limited supply and huge demand."
History has a role in San Marino's vitality too. The San Gabriel Valley community was founded in 1913 "upon the appearance and maintenance of properties and property values," according to the city website. Pages and pages of special regulations spell out what that means.
Each home may have only one kitchen, and residents may not park their cars on the street overnight. Front fences and hedges can be no more than 4 feet tall. Trash cans must be tucked out of site. No horses, cows, burros or hogs are permitted. Lumen and decibel levels cannot be excessive.
Such ordinances maintain the orderly look of the houses as well as the community, said Wallace Lee, treasurer of the San Marino Chamber of Commerce and a kitchen and bathroom contractor.
"Construction trucks need a permit to park in front of a house, even for an estimate," he said. Otherwise they risk being ticketed.
Homes bordering the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens sell in the $2 million to $5 million range, while entry-level houses can be found for less than $1 million.
There are no condominiums or apartment buildings, and commercial operations such as restaurants and shops are clustered in two small business districts.
Unlike L.A.'s Westside, San Marino is "not all gated, not all hidden," said Smith, the Sotheby's agent.
"San Marino is immediately a stamp of credibility," Smith said. "You have arrived."