The first time I found myself in Pasadena, I wasn’t too impressed. I followed directions to the touristic Old Town neighborhood, but to my East Coast eyes, the generic upscale storefronts — Pottery Barn, Anthropologie — looked no older than most places.
It took several years and a day to kill before I stumbled onto the reason Pasadena is so beloved. Shielded by the San Rafael Hills from the Pacific’s chilly fog and the arid Valley deserts, this wealthy city east of Los Angeles is a verdant oasis of tall, shady trees; it’s a destination for culture as well, with a strong Jewish imprint and several of California’s finest museums. These are no small things in a region where both greenery and pre-20th-century masterworks tend to be in short supply.
Gardens and great art come together at the Norton Simon Museum, where three Jewish visionaries are responsible for one of Southern California’s most spectacular art institutions. One was Simon himself, the Jewish industrialist and philanthropist, who sought a showcase for his collection of art from South Asia, America and Europe.
Another was the German-born Jewish art dealer Galka Scheyer, whose impressive collection of 20th-century art formed the core of the struggling Pasadena Art Museum when Simon took it over in the 1970s.
Then Canadian-Jewish starchitect Frank Gehry was hired for a major renovation … and the result is a kind of nirvana for art lovers. It’s one of the few places west of the Mississippi where you can go from the Italian baroque to French Impressionism and American Pop Art, and then stroll outdoors (year-round!) amid world-class sculpture.
Across town, Pasadena’s other major museum, the Huntington, this month unveiled an 8,600-square-foot American Wing, featuring the exhibition “Becoming America” and bolstering its already-strong holdings of New World art. Named for its industrialist benefactor, Henry Huntington, the fin-de-siècle estate —formally known as the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens — can easily fill an entire day or more.
For starters, there are the botanical gardens, a transporting world of footbridges, pagodas and pavilions that encompass everything from desert landscapes to Chinese and Australian themes; all the cafés come with fairytale garden views.
Huntington’s art collection focuses exclusively on painting and sculpture from America and Europe that dates from the dawn of 20th-century Modernism all the way back to the American Colonial period and the European Renaissance. But perhaps the biggest goose bumps come from the rare books in the Huntington Library: early editions of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Audubon’s “Birds of America” and a Gutenberg Bible.
The Craftsman-style Gamble House.
To complete the Pasadena cultural trifecta, head a few blocks north of the Simon Museum to the Gamble House. The Gamble family (as in Procter &) once lived in what is now a historic landmark, a house-museum, and a temple for those who worship the Craftsman architectural style. That aesthetic — plainspoken wooden beams, straight-line simplicity — is now very much in vogue, given the modern preference for all things natural and authentic.
The best way to enjoy the Gamble is to book one of its many themed tours, which range from the introductory overview (an hour-long stroll through the warm-hued wooden interior) to the obsessive (specialized peeks at the estate’s stained glass and carved-wooden details or closets that are usually off-limits). You can include the majestic Gamble House on a walking tour of the neighborhood, which is a lineup of mansions from the Golden Ages of both Hollywood and Pasadena.
Indeed, once I got over my Old Town disappointment, I discovered that Pasadena is a unique repository of vintage California architecture. The city was built as a Southern California winter resort for snow-weary Easterners, and the tangible legacy of that era — elegant white fin-de-siècle structures, gracious formal gardens and Arts-and-Crafts cottages — remains a cornerstone of its enduring charm.
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But to savor that charm, you’d best explore neighborhoods like Bungalow Heaven, a 16-block historic district that preserves quirky, diverse examples of Craftsman-style bungalows from the 1920s. Bungalow Heaven is a sort of tree-lined, suburban version of the Venice Beach canals, a fantasy world where residents expect you to gawk at their front porch. And it’s not the only such neighborhood; numerous online resources, including the official city website, offer guides for exploring Pasadena’s troves of midcentury modern ranches, Victorian-era villas and bungalows built on what were once groves of orange trees.
I wound down my Pasadena excursion on the leafy grounds of Cal Tech, where generations of Jewish scientists have made their mark. I was never in danger of studying here — your numbers-challenged correspondent barely passed algebra — but like everywhere else in Pasadena, the campus was seductively lovely, with its burbling fountains, arched porticoes and shady lawns.
Equal parts ambition and good looks, it’s one more example of how Pasadena epitomizes the California good life.