In 1887 along the San Gabriel Mountains, the community of Altadena launched with great promise to compete against mighty Pasadena to the south. Some wood and shingle houses by local architects went up, planted with showy flower gardens, but the hamlet stayed a countryside stop for year-end holiday visitors. Winter blossoms, orchards and poppy fields -- what more did a tourist need?
Town founders John and Frederick Woodbury were from a pioneer Iowa family. In 1883 on a 400-acre ranch bordered by Marengo and Lake avenues, Altadena Drive and Woodbury Road, Fred built a white clapboard mansion. He moved in while his brother John looked after the family bank.
On the gentle scrubby slope surrounding his house, Fred did what Americans did: plant, for food and for pleasure. Grapevines and oranges, a few ornamental trees and shrubs, grew in the California sun. The Woodbury place was like farms across America except for rows of cedars taking root out back.
Before our pave-don't-plant era, majestic trees lined city streets and avenues, announcing to newcomers and passers-through that proud citizens had brought civilization to the American wilderness. There was no finer sight than the spring bloom of magnolias in Rome, Ga., the canopy of wineglass elms in summertime Syracuse, N.Y., and the autumn blaze of sugar maples in Concord, Mass.
Imported eucalyptus, palms and peppers joined native oaks and pines to make the nation's roads democracy's garden.
For new Altadena, John Woodbury envisioned an avenue of towering Cedrus deodara, a variety of cedar he discovered on a ramble through Italy.
After the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that the sweet-smelling Himalayan variety could tough out the SoCal seasons, John ordered seeds by mail. On his land, Fred planted them under cold frames to extend the growing season.
In 1885, ranch hands transplanted more than a hundred 2-foot-tall deodars along both sides of a straight avenue running uphill from Woodbury Road. John never built the mansion he planned for the end of this alley. Within a few years it became Santa Rosa Avenue, framed by 60-foot specimens, their wispy, Dr. Seuss boughs rustling when the desert winds blew. It was a not-to-miss, magical sight for generations enthralled by natural wonders.
Altadena prospered, development followed and a sputtering intruder rolled along Santa Rosa Avenue. The automobile had arrived.
There was nothing eco about a car. It needed level ground, street drains, a clutter of signs and city lights. National and state road-widening campaigns and safety regulations decimated miles of trees and roadside flowers along American byways.
In out-of-the-way Altadena, the Woodbury deodars survived. In 1920 a Pasadena businessman enlisted city officials to jazz up the cedars with holiday lights; Christmas Tree Lane was born. It became a tourist attraction and an environmental triumph, praised by preservationists encouraging Americans to stop chopping trees for the holidays.
Eco virtue was no match for techno wonder, and by 1945 close to a quarter of a million visitors drove along Christmas Tree Lane at year's end with car lights off to heighten the effect. Today, down from its all-time highs in the car-touring '50s and '60s, the annual drive-through ride continues along the patchy remains of the shady avenue. Should it?
Almost lost is the spirit of John Woodbury's simpler time, when the dark silence of empty roads greeted American travelers making their way at night. As we relearn to go lightly on the land and rediscover for our children nature's secret, imagine Santa Rosa Avenue with no lights and no cars, sheltered by century-old cedars, their branches silhouetted against a starlit, winter sky. It is Christmas Eve and as families and friends walk slowly along in the crisp night air, someone in the shadowy distance hums, "Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright."