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Monrovia’s Midwest mystique

Times Staff Writer

It’s is a quintessential slice of Southern California, snuggled against soaring San Gabriel peaks, a place where deer graze in frontyards and bears are known to wander by. It’s a town known for exquisitely maintained and highly admired homes that exemplify the best of Craftsman and Victorian design. An old-fashioned main street -- home to idiosyncratic and independent retailers -- thrives. Summer nights are hot; winter days are cool. Old Route 66 runs through it.

Pasadena? Hardly.

This is Monrovia, the town that time forgot. (Well, almost. The soaring real estate market keeps Monrovia rooted firmly in the present.) Monrovia’s Old Town is the anti-mall, an antidote for those who are tired of worshiping at the indistinguishable retail temples of newly contrived downtowns. You probably won’t spot any celebrities here, and good luck trying to buy a pair of $200 jeans. Monrovia’s not like that. It’s a little bit slow and a little bit square -- a place to spend an afternoon or evening shopping, eating, appreciating architecture and generally recalibrating the speed of life.

Monrovia’s pervasive small-town feeling is deliberate. There are no “big-box” retailers -- and only a scattering of chain stores for that matter -- in the heart of Old Town, the five block stretch of Myrtle Avenue between Foothill Boulevard and Olive Avenue.

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“We don’t have anything faddish,” says Monrovia Mayor Rob Hammond, who owns three pawnshops, including one on Myrtle Avenue. “Our downtown is not ever going to be geared to chain stores. We don’t have everything for everybody. We have absolutely preserved the character of the community, absolutely preserved the atmosphere of Rockwellian Americana. There is no Old Navy looking to come here. It’s just not going to happen.”

Instead, Old Town has singular book and gift stores; clothing stores; art galleries; antiques stores; old-fashioned toy, records and comic-book emporiums; a tea parlor; bakeries; a newsstand; and restaurants. Huge caramel apples gleam in the window at Sir Walter Nuts and Candy. Even the multiplex was designed to minimize its effect on the aesthetic of Myrtle Avenue.

“I think what you find about Monrovia that’s rather unique is that they really have a family atmosphere, versus a community like Pasadena that is attracting yuppies or Gen-Xers,” says Tina Carey, who owns Mystic Sisters, an eclectic Old Town book and gift store with an expansive mission that includes weekly signings for local authors, a weekly Native American prayer circle, a grief support group and regular meetings of the Bahai faith.

Away from downtown, residential neighborhoods of Monrovia are liberally dotted with the region’s storied architectural styles, particularly from the boom eras of the 1880s and the 1920s. That, plus the relative scarcity of palm trees, has meant that the town has frequently been used as a cinematic stand-in for the Midwest.

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“We’re Anytown, U.S.A.,” says Sheila Spicer-Batice, who handles film permits for the city. A partial list of movies filmed in Monrovia (which is just minutes east of Pasadena on the 210 Freeway) includes “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “American Beauty,” “American Pie” and “Garfield.” The long-running TV show “Picket Fences” was shot in Monrovia, and the old Monrovia Community Hospital will be the location for a new TV show, “Invasion,” about the aftermath of a hurricane.

Every Friday evening from March through December, Old Town transforms itself when several blocks of Myrtle are closed to traffic for Monrovia’s Family Festival, a four-hour street scene with arts and crafts booths, food stands, live music and a farmers market. For children, there are giant inflatable bouncers, storytellers and a petting zoo. On a crowded night, says Hammond, “we get over 10,000 people, and I have never had a parking complaint.” (Parking is ample in the lots off Myrtle, and it’s free.)

One recent Friday near dusk, the air was fragrant with the smells of grilling meat and baking potatoes from food carts. Families and groups of teenagers began trickling toward Myrtle Avenue around 5 p.m. By 8:30 p.m., Myrtle and its cross streets were jammed, but the vibe was mellow, compared with, say, the crowds at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade or Pasadena’s Old Town.

Steve BAKER is a Monrovian’s Monrovian. His family arrived in the city in 1886, a year before the town was founded, during the first great real estate boom of Southern California. Except for a few peripatetic years in Northern California, Baker has always lived here. In 1991, he became the town’s official historian, a strictly volunteer proposition. (“What Shelby Foote did for the Civil War,” says Hammond, “Steve Baker has done for Monrovia.”)

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“I have a strong sense of being rooted in this community,” Baker says over coffee in the Monrovian, a modest downtown restaurant on the site of what was once the local branch of Security Pacific bank, where Baker, 63, worked for many years. “The reasons I said I never wanted to live here are the reasons I live here. This high level of people knowing who you are and what you’re about. It’s a small town in a good way. The gossip is no different from anywhere else. Stories circulate. But there is genuine concern about people’s well being. And the people who come want to be part of a community.”

Baker, who lives in the Victorian farmhouse of his childhood, conducts a mean architectural tour of the city, which once was known as a health resort, its sanatorium in the hills attracting Easterners suffering from tuberculosis. “The people who came here in the 1880s -- many from Iowa -- wanted to re-create what they’d known, and so there is kind of a Midwestern mystique here,” Baker says. “People think it’s corny, but the values have survived. People sense that there is impermanency, and they’re buffeted by trends they have no control over. There is a heightened sense now of vulnerability, because of terrorism, traffic, no job security. Monrovia is a symbol of a more leisurely, stable time, and people are drawn to it.”

Monrovia’s problems are typical of many other Southern California cities. There is a dearth of affordable housing, says the mayor, which the town is trying to address with new residential projects on the south side of town.

In 1994, Monrovia received national attention when it claimed to be the first American city to adopt a daytime curfew for minors. Challenged several times in court, the curfew was upheld by California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal. In 2003, the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

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Last year, animal rights protesters picketed and vandalized the historic home once owned by muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair. The home’s owner worked for a firm that the protesters alleged had ties to companies conducting animal research. In response, the city passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor for picketers to come closer than 300 feet to a residence.

One recent morning, Baker drove a visitor past some of the town’s architectural gems -- including the Sinclair home on North Myrtle, a 1923 Spanish Colonial Revival that the novelist bought in the 1940s. Baker knows every significant property, its history and current condition and usually its current occupants too. He pointed out the fence that the Sinclair house owners got permission to build after they came under siege by the protesters.

Baker slows in front of a magnificent 1887 Queen Anne Victorian mansion on North Mayflower Avenue, where Theodore Roosevelt is said to have delivered a speech off the second floor “Juliet” balcony when he was a vice presidential candidate in 1900. He parks and takes a walk along a charming block of jewel-like Craftsman bungalows in the 300 block of Wildrose Avenue. (The tour that Baker gives is available on a CD that can be ordered from the Monrovia Old House Preservation Group or purchased locally.)

One reason the housing stock is so well preserved is that, like many other California cities, Monrovia offers incentives to owners of homes built before 1930 to preserve exteriors and keep them in good repair. Owners whose homes qualify for “historic landmark” status receive a major break in their property tax bill -- around 50% -- for at least 10 years. The Old House Preservation Group is a driving force in the community; with 200 households as members, it’s the largest nonprofit group in the city, whose population is stable at about 40,000. Each year it puts on a Mother’s Day Tour fundraiser, enlisting a handful of owners to open their historic homes to the public for the day.

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Monrovia is known for more than its well-preserved homes and Friday night street scene.

Eleven years ago, the city received international attention when a 500-pound black bear, nicknamed Samson, wandered down from the foothills to eat avocados and was videotaped lolling in a backyard hot tub. (Samson was trapped and moved to the Orange County Zoo, where he died in 2001. He is memorialized with a statue at Monrovia Canyon Park, the city-owned wilderness area on the edge of town.) Bears are a recurring problem for Monrovia -- Hammond recently had a mother and two cubs in his yard. He once found a bear hibernating in a drainage pipe on his property, and a few years ago his son saw three bears feasting away in their pecan tree. It’s not uncommon to see deer foraging on front lawns in the blocks above Foothill Boulevard.

In conversations with Monrovians, the phrase “sense of community” often crops up. This sense expresses itself in occasionally surprising ways. For instance, in 1999 Monrovia voters agreed to raise their taxes to buy 600 acres of land in the foothills in order to protect it from development. (According to this newspaper, the last time the city had passed a bond measure was during the Eisenhower era.)

Around the same time, the citizenry waged a major postcard campaign, asking Trader Joe’s to put in a store. Not only did Trader Joe’s soon open a retail location in Monrovia, but the billion-dollar grocer moved its headquarters there too. The headquarters is an unmarked, bland one-story building on Shamrock Avenue. “The only place we put signs is on our stores,” says John Basalone, who became Trader Joe’s spokesman after Pat St. John retired July 1.

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Though other parts of the San Gabriel Valley have long been the destination of foodies looking for authentic Asian dining experiences, Monrovia has undergone something of a minor culinary revolution as its Old Town has developed. One restaurant in particular, Devon, has become one of those finds that people will trek miles to experience. For dessert on a recent Friday night, bleu cheese ice cream was served with slices of caramelized baked peaches.

Just across the street from Devon, for worshipers of the Arts and Crafts movement, Historic Lighting is the object of many a pilgrimage. The spacious location specializes in reproductions -- not just of lamps and fixtures, but of furniture, pottery and even jewelry. To accommodate street fair crowds, the store stays open till 9 p.m. Fridays.

The building that can probably take credit for first putting Monrovia on the map is not a stylishly maintained historical home at all but the Aztec Hotel, a 1925 white stucco inn on Foothill Boulevard designed by Robert Stacy-Judd, a Brit who has been described variously as “wacky” and “flamboyant.”

The decorative motifs inside and out are based on Maya designs. According to local lore, however, Judd thought that “Aztec” had a better ring to it. In their comprehensive volume, “An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles,” authors David Gebhard and Robert Winter wrote simply of the kitschy Aztec: “words fail.”

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As a business, the hotel has had a checkered history. Only a few years after it opened, it was closed by its investors during the Great Depression and auctioned off for $50,000, according to current owner Kathie Reece-McNeill. Some say it was a brothel and speak-easy in the days of Prohibition. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Santa Anita Race Track helped draw some of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces to the Aztec, including Bing Crosby and Mickey Rooney. Since 2000, Reece-McNeill has coordinated a restoration effort at the facility.

These days, half of the hotel’s 44 rooms are residential, and its Brass Elephant Bar is a popular local hangout. The current manager, Jewel Myers, was on her way to San Diego from Los Angeles a few years ago when she was offered a job at the Aztec. Myers’ husband, Jorge D’soria, a Mexican-born opera singer and artist, is restoring the old hotel’s interior murals using photographs from Stacy-Judd’s archive at UC Santa Barbara.

Myers, a pianist who accompanies her husband, has instituted “Opera Night” each Wednesday at the Aztec. But getting people to come for opera, she says, is “like pulling hen’s teeth.”

As family-oriented as Monrovia may be, it’s not without its surprises. A few blocks east of the Aztec, at the north end of Myrtle, a bold sign announces the town’s newest emporium: The Burnin Earth Smoke Shop is open for business. The windows are veiled and a sign on the door warns that anyone younger than 18 is prohibited from entering. Inside, the proprietor, 33-year-old Josh Lynn, is alone, sitting in an easy chair. There is a display case and shelves full of beautifully colored glass pipes.

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“Is this a head shop?” a visitor asks.

Absolutely not, he says. His pipes, which range in price from about $25 to several hundred dollars, are for tobacco only. Still, he adds, “most people who walk in are really shocked. They say, ‘I can’t believe you opened on Myrtle!’ ”

That was approximately the mayor’s reaction when informed of the new business.

“It’s a what? I thought it was a cigar shop. Hmmm. I should check that out.”

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Welcome mat

Monrovia is in the San Gabriel Valley, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. To get to its Old Town, take the 210 Freeway, exit at Myrtle Avenue and drive about one mile north.

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Historic Tour: A self-guided driving tour, produced by the Monrovia Old House Preservation Group on CD or cassette, is a great way to experience the architectural riches of the city. Depending on traffic and the length of your stops, the tour can take up to 90 minutes. The CD and brochure can be purchased for $20 at a number of locations, including:

Monrovia Public Library: 321 S. Myrtle Ave.

Monrovia City Hall Planning Department: 415 S. Ivy Ave., (626) 932-5550

Monrovia Chamber of Commerce: 620 S. Myrtle Ave., (626) 358-1159. (Open Monday-Thursday.)

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Kaleidoscope Antiques: 306 S. Myrtle Ave., (626) 303-4042

Patty’s Antiques: 316 S. Myrtle Ave., (626) 358-0344

For $24.75, the CD can be ordered from the website of the Monrovia Old House Preservation Group, at www.mohpg.org. Or call (626) 358-7822

Monrovia Family Festival: On South Myrtle Avenue between Lemon and Olive avenues, it takes place 5-9 p.m. Fridays between March and December. It includes a farmers market along with other street fair standards: arts and crafts booths, food carts, activities for children and live entertainment. Many Old Town merchants stay open late.

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Historic Lighting Inc.: This showroom is for lovers (and collectors) of the Arts and Crafts movement. The work of many local artisans is on display here, and the store offers lighting and design expertise. Recently the store opened a second showroom in an adjacent space. 114 E. Lemon Ave., (626) 303-4899

Restaurant Devon: Imaginative French-California style cuisine. Starters, $6 to $15. Entrees, $18 to $29. Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; dinner, 6-9 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays; 6-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5-8:30 p.m. Sundays. 109 E. Lemon Ave., (626) 305-0013

Monrovia Canyon Park: Trails, picnic tables and a waterfall. 1200 N. Canyon Blvd. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. Parking, $5. (626) 256-8282


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