Their Home Is a Castle : Once a Resort Hotel, the Elaborate Site Is Being Restored In Its New Life as Co-op

Times Staff Writer

Four months ago, Linnea Searle, 29, moved from Northern California to take a marketing job with a Glendale company, but she was unsure where to live.

Then, driving through the historic Old Town section of Pasadena, she found it. “I just saw this building and said to myself: ‘I’ve got to live there.’ ”

The Castle Green, foreboding, alluring and intriguing, had captured another heart, as it has often throughout the last century.


With its mishmash of Mediterranean and Moorish styles, topped by a red-tile roof and bedecked with ornate loggias and an expansive veranda, the beige stucco building has long towered over western Pasadena, bewitching passersby, residents and hotel guests alike.

“The glory of this place is it is still here and it is basically like it was in 1898,” said preservationist Claire Bogaard, executive director of Pasadena Heritage. “In so many communities, particularly in the West, buildings like this one have long been demolished.”

Originally a resort hotel for winter-weary Easterners and Midwesterners, Pasadena’s Castle Green became a cooperative apartment building in the mid-1920s. But over the years, it slid into a state best described as shabby genteel.

Now, what once was a large portion of a sprawling hotel is undergoing a transformation, albeit a gradual one.

Outside, the scaffolding of preservation workers--as part of a $693,000 state grant--are scheduled to go up early next year, Bogaard said.

That will just be a start on $4 million to $5 million in needed repairs that preservationists and Castle Green residents believe will be made.

“It will be absolutely stupendous when it’s restored,” Bogaard said.

Inside, young, new co-op owners are refurbishing their units in a range of styles, from glass-block modern to eclectic Victorian to Mission and Craftsman. Cooperative apartments, which three and four years ago sold for $35,000 to $50,000, are going for between $125,00 to $250,000.

Jack Woody, 34, an arts book publisher who divides his time between the Castle and Santa Fe, was so smitten with the place that since 1988 he has bought three co-op units.

“It takes a lot just to go up to the door at first. And you’re not even sure where the door is,” he said. “But I like architectural personality, and it certainly has got that in spades.”

The lobby at 99 S. Raymond St. looks much as it did in the black-and-white photographs on the walls from decades ago.

White-wicker furniture fills the sun porch. Carved cherry woodwork adorns the green-tiled fireplace mantel in the main living room. In the “Moorish Room,” so called because of its richly detailed woodwork and furnishings that were made especially for the room, an octagonal table occupies the center. Next door, the Card Room has an expansive wall mirror that reflects another elegant fireplace.

A marble stairway, with an ironwork and wooden banister, leads from the lobby to the apartments located on the five floors above and so does a vintage, manually operated elevator made of black-iron latticework.

To talk to people who live at the Castle or once lived there is to hear legend, fact and tall tale merge into the accepted truth of the place.

And the stories go on and on, whether it’s about Clark Gable staying there or President Benjamin Harrison unsuccessfully trying to cast a sober tone on a dinner party that became a drunken debacle in the 1890s.

From silent-screen stars to rowdy 1990s celebrities, the Castle has just about seen it all.

A journalist who once lived there said she was writing a novel and realized she had to look no further than down the hall for her inspiration. “The place is really weird,” and, she added, wonderful.

Woody said that one day he showed filmmaker David Lynch (“Blue Velvet” and “Twin Peaks”) around the Castle when Lynch was scouting locations.

Woody said that he introduced Lynch to one of the longtime elevator operators, Andrew Kaminski and that the director was so taken with Kaminski that he wanted to use the elevator man in the movie “Wild at Heart.”

But Kaminski, one among several beloved curmudgeons and characters at the Castle, said: “It wasn’t me. That must have been the morning elevator man, Abraham.”

Regardless, scenes for “Wild at Heart,” were shot there, said Castle manager and resident of one-year, Steven Harris, a 30-year-old interior designer.

And, for certain, a famous card-playing scene in “The Sting” with Robert Redford and Paul Newman was shot in the Card Room. And Redford was back just a few weeks ago, shooting a film and helping to contribute to the $100,000 the Castle expects to earn this year in filming fees that go directly to restoration and upkeep.

The Castle also has served as stand-in for a French embassy in Turkey, a building in Hanoi and a Chicago funeral parlor.

“It’s really a one-of-a-kind building in Southern California,” said Woody. “An antidote to the banality of the San Fernando Valley.”

Rich in history, the Castle Green was once part of the Hotel Green, a series of buildings that sprawled over two blocks and were built over a dozen years starting in the late 1880s.

The first structure, located where a floral supply store is today, opened New Year’s Day in 1890 next to railroad tracks that still run between Raymond Avenue and Arroyo Parkway. A pedestrian bridge, still standing and connected to the Castle, was built from the original hotel.

Adjacent to the Castle today, and appearing to be a part of it, is a separate building at Green Street and Fair Oaks Avenue. In the early 1890s, the building housed the first home of Throop University, forerunner of the California Institute of Technology.

This section and a third next to it were a hotel for decades, until the 1970s when they were essentially gutted, except for the first floor, and converted into 139 federally subsidized apartments for the disabled and elderly.

The Castle itself, for years, was home to a number of “little old ladies from Pasadena.” Only a few remain, and among the most notable is 88-year-old Adele Shinn. This week she said that she still feels much the way she did when, in 1973, she told a Times’ reporter that living in the Castle gives her an aristocratic feeling that harkens back, perhaps, to the hotel’s first owner, Col. G. G. Green, the patent medicine magnate who named his daughter and his private coach train: “Altadena.”

“I believe in aristocracy,” Shinn said in 1973, “and I don’t mind telling you that I don’t believe in egalitarianism.”

Shinn arrived at the Castle during the Depression, a decade before another longtime resident, Mignonne Poirier, came by train from New Hampshire to be with her uncle, whose wife had just died. “I got off the train across the street,” Poirier said, “and came directly here.”

Today, Poirier lives in an elegantly appointed apartment, its semicircular living room providing views south across the rosebush-filled Central Park and northeast toward the San Gabriel Mountains.

“We have a famous concert pianist from Argentina who just bought an apartment,” Poirier said in a confiding tone.

The Castle has always been home to the eccentric, the artistic, the reclusive and it has long been “a very close community,” said the other co-manager, Nick Williamson.

Co-manager Harris said, “It’s a very diverse group of people living here. And it’s a very artsy crowd.”

The only way Dan Kilgore could persuade his wife, Lisa Dennis, to move to the San Gabriel Valley from the Hollywood Hills was, he said, if they moved to the Castle Green.

Now, for the same rent of $900 that they paid in the Hollywood Hills, Kilgore and Dennis say they have an infinitely more enjoyable place to live. They are now restoring it, hoping to buy.

Kilgore, 27, and Dennis, 25, who grew up in Glendale and both work in the television and film industry, moved there in September and rent a one-bedroom unit with a huge porch.

As a boy, Kilgore said, he would ride by, utterly fascinated with the huge building, as his father “would sort of tease us with ghost stories about it.”

Indeed, at least two ghosts are said to frequent the Castle: One is a gentleman in a top hat and suit coat on the sixth floor, and the other is a lady who appears in the basement laundry room.

Ghosts notwithstanding, Kilgore said:

“When we were living up in the Hollywood Hills, I couldn’t tell you who my neighbors were. And I lived there for five years. But this is an oasis. People often leave their doors open and my first impression was, ‘Gee, this is kind of dormish.’ But it’s the first place I’ve ever lived that I truly enjoy coming home to.”