Email

Civil War, Arsenic & Old Lace in Pasadena

Apr 17, 2016

600px_Orange-Grove-Ave_Pasadena-CA_1916Civil War, Arsenic and Old Lace in Pasadena
by Kirk Myers, Assistant Archivist

On January 15, 1942 the Los Angeles Herald Express revisited a story it had reported four months earlier—that there was a “civil war” in Pasadena over the proposed rezoning of South Orange Grove Avenue.

“In an atmosphere where the scent of lavender and the rustle of old lace was almost literally evident, gentlemen with white sideburns and elderly ladies sitting stiffly with lorgnettes in their laps listened today while orators fought a bitter battle over Orange Grove avenue, the ‘millionaires’ row’ of carriage days, whose sacred purlieus will be invaded by rakish modern apartment houses if a proposed new zoning law is accepted by the Pasadena Planning Commission.”

“Dignity and wit contended in the battle of horse and buggy days versus the motor age at the hearing before Chairman Sylvanus B. Marston and members of the commission in the Council chamber of the Pasadena City Hall.”

 

LA-Herald-Express_front-pg_Jan-1942

Los Angeles Herald Express, January 15, 1942: A general view of the partisans in Pasadena’s “civil war” over whether Orange Grove avenue’s “millionaires row” of mansions shall be rezoned for apartment houses is shown above as the rival camps battled today before the Pasadena Planning Commission.

 

“Lavender and old lace” was a term used to describe the Victorian era, and in using that imagery, the writer noted that it “was almost literally evident.”

The Pasadena Independent covered the story a day later, and that writer thought to improve on the metaphor used by the Herald Express:

“There was arsenic in the old lace when gentility and dignity pervaded the atmosphere of the Pasadena city council room yesterday.  Residents of South Orange Grove avenue clashed bitterly and oratorically in arguments for and against the proposed rezoning of this famous avenue for swanky height-limit apartment houses. Many of them were making the last stand for the aristocratic old time Pasadena.”

 

Wrigley Mansion, currently Tournament of Roses headquarters; photo, L. A. Times photographic archive, UCLA Library; June 19, 1956.

Wrigley Mansion, currently Tournament of Roses headquarters; photo, L. A. Times photographic archive, UCLA Library; June 19, 1956.

 

In January, 1942 the play Arsenic and Old Lace had already had a successful year on Broadway, with favorable reviews. The title is thought to be a word play on “lavender and old lace.”

In comparing “aristocratic old time Pasadena” to the homicidal Brewster sisters in the play, who put lonely old bachelors out of their misery by serving them elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide, the writer perhaps wanted to convey that there was quite an exciting  story in the making in Pasadena over the rezoning fight. In early 1942 there was no way to know how it would be resolved among the contending forces. The Independent noted that in the hearing in January, 1942, “the capacity audience was sharply divided into two factions.”

On September 22, 1941, the Herald Express had earlier reported that “… ‘civil war’ is on in one of the nation’s most famous plutocrat colonies over petitions to re-zone the thoroughfare to permit the erection of apartment houses along the stretch.”

 

“Even the pioneers who settled in the Crown City were imbued with the city beautiful germ and laid their plans accordingly. Some of these plans were realized, others went by the board, but Orange Grove avenue was preserved and is today the most beautiful residence street in the world, lined with the homes of some of the country’s wealthiest men and women.” Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1916 Pasadena Museum of History S45-3

“Even the pioneers who settled in the Crown City were imbued with the city beautiful germ and laid their plans accordingly. Some of these plans were realized, others went by the board, but Orange Grove avenue was preserved and is today the most beautiful residence street in the world, lined with the homes of some of the country’s wealthiest men and women.” Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1916. Pasadena Museum of History S45-3

 

“The first skirmish between the millionaires who are fighting for the mansions and the millionaires battling for apartment house modernization on the avenue is scheduled for late this month at a hearing before the Pasadena City Planning Commission.”

The Pasadena Independent observed on September 3, 1941 that “The proposed change along South Orange Grove avenue will be particularly spectacular because for years this thoroughfare was the city’s most exclusive residential section. Every home was a mansion set far back from the street and surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens and broad lawns.”

Originally laid out in 1874 with the founding of the settlement that was named Pasadena in 1875, Orange Grove Avenue later became nationally known as Pasadena’s version of “Millionaires’ Row.”  The 1¼  mile stretch from Colorado to Columbia was called the “Mile of Millionaires” and was said to be one of the most beautiful residential streets in America.

 

Home constructed 1908-09 for David B. Gamble of the Proctor & Gamble company by local architects Henry and Charles Greene. Located at the northern end of Millionaires Row, near Fenyes Mansion, at 4 Westmoreland Place. Photo by Wayne Selway at Pasadena: Out & About.

Home constructed 1908-09 for David B. Gamble of the Proctor & Gamble company by local architects Henry and Charles Greene. Located at the northern end of Millionaires Row, near Fenyes Mansion, at 4 Westmoreland Place. Photo by Wayne Selway at Pasadena: Out & About.

 

But after the Depression began, there was a growing sense that the heyday of the street was over, and some kind of transition would occur.

The Pasadena Post reported on April 6, 1936 that a new organization had been formed.  “Confronted by the prospect of the invasion by income property construction, including apartments and courts, on Orange Grove  Avenue, one of the most widely publicized avenues in America, taxpayers last night formed the South Orange Grove Avenue Protective Association and moved to prevent efforts to commercialize the street.”

The fight would go on for years, and the zoning study that was undertaken—R-R (Restricted-Residential)—was pronounced by the Property Owners’ Committee of Southwest Pasadena to be “probably the longest and most costly zoning study in the history of the United States.”

At times the controversy was heated. The Herald Express observed on January 15, 1942 that homeowners “applauded briskly” and there were “discreet murmurs of ‘bravo’” when Eugene Rouse, “advertising man and president of Town Hall discussion group,” addressed the commission:

“This is a city of homes,” Rouse exclaimed, his voice rising emotionally. “We who live on Orange Grove avenue don’t want them jammed in. I left Chicago because there were too many people there. Let’s not kid ourselves that putting in apartment houses is going to beautify Orange Grove avenue or take us back to the good old days.”

Six years later on February 5, 1948 “Leet Bissell, speaking for the South Orange Grove Avenue Association, said that any poll would reveal that the majority of property owners living on the street opposed any change in zoning which would permit what he terms ‘three-story monstrosities for the benefit of greedy developers.”

 

Bissell House. Built in 1887. Home of Anna McCay Bissell (daughter of vacuum magnate Melville Bissell) was "one of Pasadena's most beloved philanthropists," and resided here from 1902 until the mid 1950s. Bissell House has been a popular B&B for over 20 years.

Bissell House. Built in 1887. Home of Anna McCay Bissell (daughter of vacuum magnate Melville Bissell) was “one of Pasadena’s most beloved philanthropists,” and resided here from 1902 until the mid 1950s. Bissell House has been a popular B&B for over 20 years.

 

On April 6, 1948 the Pasadena Star-News noted that the sentiment among property owners was still divided about 50-50 over the proposed R-R Zone.

“Edward W. Burns, 1250 South Orange Grove Avenue, chairman of a property-owner committee favoring the R-R zone, testified that only 14 per cent of those who oppose the change of zone do so for the purpose of preserving their homes. ‘I am convinced that the others who have signed did so with other purposes in mind, such as the maintenance of boarding houses,’ Mr. Burns said.

“Arvin B. Shaw, 315 South Orange Grove Avenue, stated that the avenue had deteriorated over the years and it now needs a shot of new life. He said that the R-R zone would provide this.”

“Gene Burton, 1066 South Orange Grove, declared that the large homes on the avenue cannot be economically maintained as single family residences and he predicted that the entire street would become an avenue of boarding houses unless the new zoning plan is adopted.”

The opposing faction was not persuaded.

 

Fenyes Estate. Home of Dr. Adalbert and Eva Fenyes, Orange Grove Boulevard. Designed by Marston & Van Pelt. Photo: Kat Ward

Fenyes Estate. Home of Dr. Adalbert and Eva Fenyes, Orange Grove Boulevard. Designed by Marston & Van Pelt. Photo: Kat Ward.

 

“Henry Braun, president of the South Orange Grove Avenue Association, which for many years has successfully fought off all attempts to disturb the single-family atmosphere of Orange Grove Avenue and Caryl Sheldon, attorney for the association, carried the brunt of the opposition to the R-R zone.”

“Mr. Sheldon branded the proposal of R-R zoning a ‘well-sugared pill’ that would permit the construction of apartment houses under the names of ’respected residences, garden groups or executive homes as a means of increasing the business of realtors.’”

“Mr. Sheldon reviewed numerous attempts made to change residential use of Orange Grove Avenue and said ‘thus we see a systematic, carefully developed plan of study whereby non-residents on the avenue are acquiring land, signing petitions for variances, zone changes and generally stirring up unrest in order that they might capitalize of the fine name of South Orange Grove Avenue to financially feather their own nests. I do not mean to condemn good old American enterprise nor deny anyone the right to earn an honest dollar but I do not believe that an organized handful of property speculators should be permitted to sabotage the homes of the single-family property owners in this area.”

“Mr. Sheldon denied the assertion that Orange Grove Avenue is a boarding house district. He said that it was no different than any other residential street in Pasadena where any owner may rent three rooms to four paying guests in his house.”

The controversy was finally settled a month later in May, 1948 when the City Planning Commission approved a restricted residential zone for South Orange Grove.

 

Construction of Orange Grove Manor in 1949, the first apartments built on South Orange Grove Avenue after it was approved as a restricted residential zone by the City Planning Commission. Pasadena Museum of History S45-40

Construction of Orange Grove Manor in 1949, the first apartments built on South Orange Grove Avenue after it was approved as a restricted residential zone by the City Planning Commission. Pasadena Museum of History S45-40

 

The Pasadena Star-News reported on the first new apartments on March 27, 1949:

“Pasadena’s famed South Orange Grove Avenue, the West’s most famous residential thoroughfare, gets the ‘new look’ next month when construction starts on Lionel V. Mayell’s cooperative restricted residences to be known as ‘Orange Grove Manor’.”

“Approval was given to plans for five multiple-unit buildings to be erected on a 205 x 280-foot site on ‘Millionaire Row,’ 160-184 South Orange Grove Avenue, two blocks south of Colorado Street, Tuesday, March 22, following public hearings before the Pasadena City Planning Commission.”

 

The sign outside of Orange Grove Manor: “In answer to many requests from people who have expressed a desire to live on South Orange Grove Avenue, we offer Orange Grove Manor and we promise that our buildings and landscaping will be a real asset to Pasadena’s most beautiful residential street.” Lionel V. Mayell, March 27, 1949 Pasadena Museum of History S45-40

The sign outside of Orange Grove Manor: “In answer to many requests from people who have expressed a desire to live on South Orange Grove Avenue, we offer Orange Grove Manor and we promise that our buildings and landscaping will be a real asset to Pasadena’s most beautiful residential street.” Lionel V. Mayell, March 27, 1949.
Pasadena Museum of History S45-40

 

Today South Orange Grove Avenue remains a beautiful residential street, with only a few of the mansions left that once gave it fame throughout the nation. And the ‘civil war’ that preceded the transition, and the former grandeur of “Millionaires’ Row,” are part of the colorful history of early Pasadena.

 

Kirk Myers, Assistant Archivist
Pasadena Museum of History
kmyers@pasadenahistory.org

 

Orange Grove Manor. Photo source: PasadenaNow.com.

Orange Grove Manor. Photo source: PasadenaNow.com.

 

Pasadena Museum of History
470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena 91103
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
Tickets: $7, general; $6, students and seniors
For more info, visit PasadenaHistory.org

 

Current exhibits on view at PMH:

“Strings Attached: Tradition Meets Contemporary Woven Art” features art/wearable art created by the members of the Bobbinwinder’s Guild of the San Gabriel Valley. It is inspired by modern global aesthetics and production techniques, as well as historical techniques of weaving and design. Members will be on hand on April 16 to offer live spinning and weaving demonstrations.

 

"Autumn" by Susan Beeler Anderson, 2015 (25" x 26")

“Autumn” by Susan Beeler Anderson, 2015 (25″ x 26″)

 

A companion exhibit, “Crossing the Atlantic Quilt by Quilt” spotlights more than thirty British and American quilts from the collection of renowned collector/author/historian Maggi Gordon.

 

Durham Triple X Strippy quilt, c. 1880. Maker unknown, probably County Durham England; photo, PMH

Durham Triple X Strippy quilt, c. 1880. Maker unknown, probably County Durham England; photo, PMH

 

Photo: Pasadena Museum of History Facebook page

Photo: Pasadena Museum of History Facebook page

 

Pasadena-Museum-History_Quilts

 

 

 




Discussion



Fiore

Flintridge Books

Lyd and Mo Photography

Louis Jane Studios

Homage Pasadena

Search