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Neighborhood Spotlight: Altadena offers varied architectural styles but few places left to build anew

Neighborhood Spotlight: Altadena offers varied architectural styles but few places left to build anew
The house is among a collection of small-model homes developed by E.P. Janes in the 1920s. (Susan Pickering)

Altadena was first envisioned as a suburb for the rich when, in 1887, Iowa natives John and Fred Woodbury opened their 937-acre subdivision above newly incorporated Pasadena.

Part of the northernmost Rancho San Pasqual Mexican land grant, the Woodburys' residential development borrowed its name from the nearby Altadena nursery ("upper-dena," in reference to its neighbor Pasadena).

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But fate intervened when Southern California's land boom crashed the following year; national railroad and bank failures followed with the "Panic of 1893."

Greater development dimmed, but Altadena did succeed in attracting a number of rich residents, particularly to a Millionaire's Row that formed along Mariposa Street.

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Famous homeowners included publishing magnates and a notable author, leading some to call the street "Publisher's Row." Among the notables: Andrew McNally, co-founder of the atlas publishing company Rand McNally, who lived in an 1888 Queen Anne-style home; publisher Frederick William Kellogg, who built next to William Armiger Scripps of the Scripps newspaper empire; and Western novelist Zane Grey, who bought a 1908 Mediterranean-revival house on Mariposa in 1920.

Wedged into the San Gabriel Mountains, Altadena also attracted the era's trendy mountaineers, sometimes termed "rusticators," and mountain tourism took off. Altadena Junction marked the starting point for the 1893 Mount Lowe Railway, a nearly seven-mile ascent with hospitality stops that included resorts, chalets, hotels, a dance hall and casino.

One of Altadena's main draws: You could drink, unlike in Pasadena, where alcohol was prohibited. So those who were part of the area's sportive set fled north when they wanted to have fun; mountain camps with beer tents were especially popular.

In 1912, the Country Club Park subdivision, carved from 500 acres of the Allen Ranch, opened on the east side as 1-acre-plus lots. West Altadena was less pricey, and being nearer to water sources, was favored by farmers and dairymen.

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Trails in the area can make for a short trip or be an all-day affair.
Trails in the area can make for a short trip or be an all-day affair. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In the mid-1920s, Altadena's population exploded — to nearly 20,000 residents from 3,500 — marking L.A. County's largest population spike during that time. Altadena filled out with middle-class home buyers, many favoring the naturalist-minimalist philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement.

New York businessman Elisha Paul Janes built English-style cottages in the mid-1920s, an early foray into mass-produced housing; 160 of his 500 envisioned "homes of distinction" were completed in Altadena.

Most of Altadena's noteworthy buildings were built during the Great Depression. Among them: Eliot Junior High School in 1931 and Farnsworth Park's Davies community center three years later.

Architect Wallace Neff designed several Altadena homes as well as a 1918 Catholic Church on Lake Avenue.

The town that began as a streetcar suburb filled out after World War II as residential development pushed against commercial areas threading up the town's steeply graded north-south streets.

Altadenans have fought off several wholesale annexation attempts by Pasadena. Death by a thousand cuts always seemed imminent: Pasadena sliced off 38 Altadena land parcels via annexations over six decades.

Altadena attempted to incorporate several times, but the initiatives failed; today it remains an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County.

 
  (Los Angeles Times)

Neighborhood highlights

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Hikers paradise: With its proximity to the San Gabriel Mountains, Altadena offers easy access to some of the region's best hiking trails, whether it's a short jaunt to Eaton Canyon Falls or an all-day trek up to Mt. Wilson. Don't forget a stop at Bulgarini Gelato afterward.

Christmas Tree Lane: For nearly 100 years, about 150 towering deodars along Santa Rosa Avenue have been strung with holiday lights during December. The eight-block stretch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a California state landmark.

Neighborhood challenge

Paltry parking: Many residential neighborhoods crowd with cars because they're packed against shops along Lake, Fair Oaks and Lincoln avenues.

Expert insight

Doug Colliflower, a real estate agent who's lived in Altadena for 26 years, considers it a hidden secret: a rural-feeling bedroom community with a bevy of architectural styles.

"There's a little bit of everything here," Colliflower said. "Craftsmans are the most common, but there are also unique midcentury homes, English Tudors and Colonial Revivals."

He describes a neighborhood locked in place. The last major development, a 270-home community called La Viña, began construction two decades ago. Since then, Altadena has looked largely the same.

"It's pretty well built-out. There aren't many areas open for new development," Colliflower said.

As of late, he's noticed a creeping sense of gentrification, as bargain-hunting Westsiders have bought properties and driven up prices in some of the cheaper areas. He sees it as a positive, however, because the rehabbed homes make for a nicer neighborhood overall.

A cherimoya treat at the gelateria.
A cherimoya treat at the gelateria. (Stefano Paltera / For The Times)

Market snapshot

In the 91001 ZIP Code, based on 38 sales, the median sales price for single-family homes in March was $759,000, up 5% year over year, according to CoreLogic.

Report card

Of the five public schools in Altadena, Daniel Webster Elementary scored the highest on the 2013 Academic Performance Index at 856. Other standouts include Franklin Elementary at 781 and Altadena Elementary at 760.

Altadena borders four public high schools. La Canada High scored the highest, at 937, followed by Marshall Fundamental, at 765. Pasadena High scored 744, and John Muir High scored 618.

Times staff writer Jack Flemming contributed to this report.

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