Rich Architectural Heritage Lives On : Altadena: Although the large estates of founding millionaires are gone, the community prides itself on preserving its distinctive lifestyle.
When Keith and Linda Mehlinger were deciding where to raise their family, Keith remembered his own experiences growing up in Altadena.
“I always had Altadena in my heart . . . and when it was time to settle in a community . . . I knew it had to be Altadena,” he said.
“We wanted to raise our children where they would experience a diversity of backgrounds and be exposed to a value system that would prepare them for what they’ll face as black men in America.”
Recalling his youth, growing up with a racial and ethnic mix, he talked Linda into the move to Altadena. She said what persuaded her was that so many of Keith’s high school friends had remained in Altadena, bought houses and were raising families.
“Altadena has a warm, community feeling, and that’s hard to find in Los Angeles,” said Linda, a technical instructor for a computer company.
“Altadena even looks different from the air,” said Keith, a high-tech film maker based in Torrance. “I was making a film for a client and had to do aerial shots over the L.A. Basin. I knew when I was over Altadena because it has many more trees that anywhere else in Los Angeles.”
They bought their Spanish-style four-bedroom, two-bath house with upgraded kitchen for $285,000 in 1988. Now with two sons, Mark, 4, and Jason, 2, they want a house with more property, and hope to move to the central part of Altadena.
“I used to think I wanted a new house with all the amenities, but living here has made me appreciate the older houses,” Linda said. “I’m looking forward to buying an old house and restoring it.”
Clinging to the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, Altadena is an 8.8-square mile unincorporated area of Los Angeles County. What once was barren, arid land belonging to the Rancho San Pasqual, was transformed just a little over a century ago by Frederick and John Woodbury into a summer vacation retreat for the wealthy.
After acquiring water rights, the Woodburys sold five- to 10-acre building sites to their friends--Andrew McNally of the Rand McNally Co.; Col. G. G. Green, a patent medicine mogul and builder of Pasadena’s Green Hotel; publisher Joseph Medill of Chicago; the Scripps, and the Kelloggs. In all, 32 business tycoons built their summer houses in Altadena.
They, and others who followed, built 6,000- to 12,000-square-foot mansions designed by renowned architects and established the core of Altadena. In time, newcomers built to the east and west on smaller one-half to one-acre sites. More modest single-family houses were built in the western portions of Altadena for families who worked for the wealthy. Sanitariums sprung up on the foothills to treat people with respiratory ailments.
And thousands of trees were planted on what once were poppy fields--pines, deodars, cypress, California live oaks, citrus, avocado and evergreens. They lined the streets and filled the estate gardens.
Today, the millionaires are gone but many of their estates remain, although on vastly reduced parcels of land. Altadena is a solid middle-class community that its residents claim with pride has retained its rich architectural heritage, offers an ethnic diversity and has a strong sense of community.
Altadena has three distinct areas: the Central Historic Area, which was the original settlement; East Altadena, which consists of newer houses on large lots, and West Altadena, an area of modest single-family houses.
Housing prices begin at $185,000 for 1,000- to 1,300-square-foot “starter” houses; $300,000 to $450,000 for 1,700- to 2,400-square-foot houses, and some historic estates are for sale at $800,000 to $1 million.
“What makes Altadena so unusual is that it is 93% owner occupied,” said Astrid Ellersieck, a real estate agent with Jim Dickson realtors and a longtime Altadena resident. “There is just one condominium complex and only a few small apartment units. There’s a real pride of ownership in this community.”
As an unincorporated area, Altadena is in the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County, which provides fire, sheriff and paramedic services. It is part of the Pasadena Unified School District, but has fought successfully against annexation by Pasadena. It is governed by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, plus an unofficial Altadena Town Council.
Four major boulevards, Lake, Fair Oaks and Allen avenues, and Altadena Drive connect Altadena to Pasadena and the adjacent freeways. Many of the residents work in Pasadena or nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory, although a large number also commute. Mehlinger drives to Torrance daily, with the trip taking an hour and a quarter each way. Altadena has also been a haven for writers and artists who are drawn by its quiet seclusion.
“No one goes anyplace through Altadena, so we’re spared commuter traffic,” said Scudder Nash, who moved to Altadena 51 years ago. He was drawn by the mountains and still hikes them frequently.
Nash was born in Pasadena, and recalls trips up the Mt. Lowe Railway with his family to picnic. When he built his house in 1939, it was the only one on the south side of his street for one-half mile. Across the street was a 40-acre vineyard, which was subdivided in 1944.
“It’s always been a friendly community where neighbors are on good terms with everyone,” he said.
One reason for Altadena’s close-knit feeling is the lack of transiency and change.
“There isn’t a high turnover here, partly because there are few apartment buildings and partly because people who experience this area are reluctant to leave it,” Ellersieck said.
She is an active member of Altadena Heritage, a nonprofit organization formed several years ago to prevent the historic houses from being demolished and to prevent development in the Altadena foothills.
“We’ve identified more than 3,000 structures that may qualify for the California Historic Inventory and possibly 60 eligible for the National Register of Historic Places,” Ellersieck said. “Many Altadena residents are rallying to prevent the destruction of these magnificent buildings.”
One of the Altadena Heritage successes is the recent designation of Christmas Tree Lane as a State Historic Landmark. Santa Rosa Avenue, a deodar-lined street, is festooned with lights each Christmas season.
In the 1950s, high property taxes caused many of the old estates to be subdivided. The Zane Grey estate is an example. Although the original house still stands, (recently purchased as a “fixer” and in the process of being restored), ranch houses flank the property.
Time was not kind to many of these grand old houses, and deterioration and decay had attacked many of them. But within the past decade, a trend has emerged of people acquiring these properties with the intention of restoring them to their former beauty.
Jeff and Cathy Ricks recently acquired one of Altadena’s oldest houses that was on the verge of being destroyed. Ellersieck had sold the couple their first house, a fixer-upper cottage in Pasadena, and a few years later helped them relocate to a larger house in Altadena.
When the Benziger house, a 6,300-square-foot 1899 Victorian-Craftsman designed by Seymour Locke, a leading Pasadena architect, was being listed for sale as a demolition and development property, Altadena Heritage interceded. Ellersieck approached the Rickses.
“My dream project was to acquire a big property that was well-designed but needed improvement,” Jeff said. He is a general contractor and with his father, had specialized in building custom homes in Big Bear.
The Benziger house, named for the family that built it, proved up to the challenge. Although well-designed and constructed, the estate had been used as an orphanage for The Pope’s Children War Relief, European children in the custody of the Catholic Church during World War II.
The Rickses bought the house and 1 1/4-acre parcel for $750,000. An 1,100-square-foot carriage house and a tea house are also on the secluded, tree-filled property. They plan to gradually restore the house and extensive orchard and gardens.
“The house is very livable as it is now, but there are a number of improvements that we want to make,” Cathy said.
While the residents are vocal in the support of Altadena, they do point out a few of its drawbacks.
“There really isn’t much shopping here and few restaurants,” Linda Mehlinger said. “We usually go to Pasadena for most of our buying.”
The Lake Avenue Business District extends from the New York Avenue border to Altadena Drive, about a mile. Shops and services line the wide thoroughfare. Some have been operated by several generations of the same family. Webster’s general store is third-generation and combines drugstore, video, gift shop, office supplies and liquor store under one roof. A 50-year-old hardware store, small specialty stores, a drugstore and supermarket also serve residents.
Altadena’s crime statistics for 1990 show two murders, 287 burglaries and 88 narcotics offenses. And there is some gang activity.
“The Crips and Bloods gangs are a presence in Pasadena, and go into southwest Altadena, which they consider part of their turf,” said Carol Wiseman, a crime analyst with the Sheriff’s Department.
Residents are not too disturbed by the crime rate.
“There are very few strangers in Altadena, and we feel safe here,” Nash said, although he did install an alarm system several years ago after his house was broken into.
“We’re a stable community with a real sense of pride,” Ellersieck said. “Our biggest battle is with the developers. Altadena hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years, and we want to keep it that way.”
AT A GLANCE
1990 estimate: 46,925 1980-89 change: +15.1%
Median age: 33.9 years
Per capita: $16,631 Median household: $43,609
Less than $25,000: 26.6% $25,000 - $40,000: 18.4% $40,000 - $50,000: 13.6% $50,000 - $75,000: 24.3% $75,000 +: 16.9%