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)
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.
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.
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.