Artifacts of the Playhouse District

Apr 3, 2012

Remnants of past eras: Horton & Converse pharmacy sign (1936) and a sign for Gelen’s Time Shop (circa 1965)

Old Town may have been Pasadena’s original town center, but for many decades the Playhouse District has been its cultural and artistic nexus. It’s also home to a staggering number of architecturally significant buildings, many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since the district has been in the news lately, we thought it a good time to take a look at the history behind some of these buildings.

1. Robinson’s Department Store Building – 777 E. Colorado Boulevard (1958)

The building in 2012 and 1960. (Click to enlarge.)

Sure, it may not look like much, but the architectural pedigree behind this one’s pretty impressive. Designed by architects Charles Luckman and William Pereira, this two-story concrete creation provides an unexpected link to San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica building—another Pereira creation. Luckman and Pereira certainly achieved higher career heights, but the building is nevertheless a good example of their midcentury work. Pereira went on to design significant parts of the UC Irvine campus and JPL, while Luckman drew up the original master plan for Kennedy Space Center. The two had a fascination with futuristic motifs (Pereira, in particular, was inspired by science fiction), and this culminated in their collaboration on the spider-like Theme Building at LAX in 1961.

Pasadena must have been pretty thrilled to have another department store. When Robinson’s opened on May 12, 1958, even the mayor, Seth Miller, showed up. Robinson’s president Donald Buckingham described the store as “urban in character, designed to serve the people of Pasadena according to their own particular tastes.”

Although Target took over the space in 1993, the exterior remains an anachronistic reminder of the nifty ’50s.

2. First Trust and Savings Bank Building – 587 E. Colorado Boulevard (1928)

Located at the corner of Madison Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, the former First Trust and Savings Bank is a true architectural treasure. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the eight-story structure was designed by architects Fitch Haskell and Cyril Bennett, who later created the blueprints for the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Now home to Bank of the West, it was originally occupied by a diverse array of tenants, including the Pasadena Studio of Lip Reading, the American Crayon Company, and the offices of Vroman’s bookstore. “The last word in bank design and construction,” the Pasadena Star-News called it.

Arcade Lane, circa 1930s and 2012. (Click to enlarge.)

3. Arcade Lane – 696 E. Colorado Boulevard (1927)

Designed as a replica of a Budapest merchant’s alley by Pasadena architects Sylvanus Marston and Garrett Van Pelt, Arcade Lane was commissioned by the Pasadena Holding Company in 1927. “It represents many novel and artistic ideas that are in line with what is modern and convenient for the shopper,” said the Star-News shortly after it opened. The novelty of its design was such that Marston and Van Pelt won an award from the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Many businesses have come and gone over the years, including the Charles Yale bookshop–a gathering spot for local historians–and the second-ever Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

4. Don Lee Cadillac Building – 655 E. Green Street (1925)

Another Marston and Van Pelt creation (designed with partner Edgar Maybury), this building was originally constructed as one of a vast empire of Don Lee Cadillac dealerships.

Don Lee Cadillac, circa 1920s. (Pasadena Museum of History.)

Lee (1884-1934) was the exclusive dealer for Cadillac on the West Coast, and was known for his custom automobile designs for movie stars. He also owned several radio stations, and in 1931, launched W6XAO, an early experimental television station that later became KCBS-TV. For awhile, Jack Symes Motors occupied the building, but in 1973 florist Jacob Maarse took over after his original Green Street store was demolished to make way for the Pasadena Convention Center.


4 Responses for “Artifacts of the Playhouse District”

  1. Greg Gunther says:

    Yes, our buildings are beautiful – but they’re just the backdrop, and the vitality of our District comes from people attracting people.

    Adding to the comments put forth by speaker Fred Kent at the recent Playhouse District Association Annual Meeting, I’d love to see more innovative ideas put into place here! Outdoor restaurant seating – more public art – flexible event space that’s visible (and draws a crowd) on Colorado Blvd (not hidden in the back byways).

    Keying into some of the beautiful spaces noted in this article, wouldn’t it be great if the “street-facing side” of Target was activated and turned it into a lively and vital public space? It would be so easy to make an urban “pocket park” like the great corner of California & Lake that bubbles over with life every weekend. I’ve often wondered why the Starbucks in Target is on the INSIDE focusing on the parking lot… Why not on the street??

    Bottom line for me:
    Let’s see action! Let’s see people!

    For additional thoughts, here’s Link to Larry Wilson’s column on Fred Kent:

  2. […] called it’s home in this stunning Spanish/Moorish structure.  Based on this article:  Artifacts of the Playhouse District, Lee was the west coast man for Cadillac and made custom cars for the […]

  3. […] The showroom building appears to have survived, is presently a florist and can be seen here. Photo above courtesy of Hometown Pasadena. […]

  4. […] Gardner Pasadena Sales Company was located at 163 West Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena, Calif., is shown here in this 1927 photo. The company built a well regarded and conventional car in […]



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