The Plaza Centre building at 150 E. Colorado Boulevard looks like “the future” as imagined by a 1970s dystopian sci-fi film. No wonder it’s been dubbed the “Darth Vader Building.”
Conceived in 1975 and finished in 1979, it was the brainchild of the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency (PRA), Wolff-Sesnon Development Company, and actor Wayne Rogers, best known for playing “Trapper John” on TV series M*A*S*H (and for recent irate appearances on Fox News), whose company, Rogers, Rousso & Elkins, invested in the project.
With its cylindrical beams and black, shiny surfaces, one can almost imagine white-helmeted storm troopers scurrying about the entrance. It’s only fitting that at the time it was built many people considered the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency as nefarious as the evil Empire from the Star Wars films. “They were promoters of probably the worst architecture that we have,” reflected Claire Bogaard, former executive director of Pasadena Heritage, in a 2004 Pasadena Star-News article.
The agency’s idea in the 1970s was to reduce “urban blight” and “keep Pasadena competitive,” even if it meant bulldozing historic buildings, and often ignoring the will of the people. Placing commerce over preservation and aesthetics, the redevelopment agency destroyed entire blocks of older, more picturesque buildings, including T.W. Mather’s Department Store and the Pasadena Athletic Club.
The Plaza Centre was part of a grander plan that included the Plaza Pasadena mall (now the Paseo Colorado). Both projects became incredibly controversial. In opposition, rallies were held on the steps of City Hall and the Civic Auditorium, the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency was sued several times by citizens, and hundreds of angry signatures were collected to try to save historic buildings. In 1977, the agency even had its offices torched by arsonists—presumably in retaliation—resulting in $100,000 worth of damages.
Most significantly, Pasadena Heritage was formed in 1977 to ensure that no more wanton destruction of historic buildings would occur. Because of the strong feelings surrounding the Plaza Centre and Plaza Pasadena, a different tack was employed when Old Town was developed a few years later—one that integrated the old with the new, retaining a sense of character and history.
After the Plaza Centre was completed in 1979, it was not long before people began associating it with the villainous black-helmeted character from Star Wars. There was (and is) something incongruous and slightly menacing about it, and today, rather than looking cutting-edge, it appears decidedly retro.
In 1980 Plaza Centre began leasing office space, and in 1981, received the “engineering excellence award” at the Concrete Industry’s “Seventh Annual Paving Awards Program.” IBM took up residence in 1983, and today it’s home to the Steinway Piano Gallery. The driving force behind the building however, did not survive. After many controversies, the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency was dissolved in 1981.
Author’s note: It’s worth mentioning that other buildings across the country have been nicknamed “Darth Vader” — including Seattle’s Fourth and Blanchard Building, also built in 1979; West Palm Beach Florida’s Northbridge Centre, built in 1985; and Brisbane, California’s Dakin Building, built in 1986.