Digging Up Secrets in Lamanda Park (Part 3)

Jul 14, 2014

Lamanda Park through the years. (Composite image by Zenia Pollard.)

“We wish to do the tourist who reads this book a good turn, having his comfort and enjoyment at heart; therefore we advise him to stop at Lamanda Park and make his headquarters for a day, or a week, or a fortnight, in this delightful spot.” – Over the Range to the Golden GateA Complete Tourist’s Guide to Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Puget Sound, and the Great North-West, 1891

Lamanda Park definitely has its own thing going on. East of Pasadena (and known more commonly as “East Pasadena”), Lamanda Park has always been idiosyncratic, right back to its founding in 1885. You can see it in the off-beat shops (Meowmeowz Rock Shop, Iguana Vintage Clothing), quirky religious organizations (Shumei America, the St. Germain “I Am” Temple, the Ma Durga Temple), and in the 50-year-old Colorado Bar, “a divey refuge for art students, Gen-Xers, and aging barflies,” as Fodor’s California calls it.

Some things in Lamanda Park seem to be frozen in time, like the Chinese restaurant next to Pasadena Christian Center, which still displays an “818” area code on its front entrance; or the On The Road-era motor court motels on East Colorado Boulevard, the oldest of which—the Ace Motel, dates from 1946.


One of Lamanda Park’s more picturesque neon signs, 2490 East Colorado Blvd. (Photo by Zenia Pollard.)

The district also has a wealth of historically-significant signage, from a preserved 1940s terrazzo threshold in front of Poo-Bah Records advertising “Karls,” a long-gone shoe store chain, and the neon display atop Fedde Furniture dating from 1950, to a 1949 “Jesus Saves” sign on the small church at 55 N. San Gabriel Boulevard.

Lamanda Park technically predates Pasadena. It was founded one year before the Rose City with roots going back to the Spanish who built a dam here in 1821 and, before that, the Tongva Indians, who inhabited the region for perhaps 1,000 years in a settlement called Acurag-na, or “Woodville.”

After California became a U.S. state in 1850, a steady stream of Americans and Europeans poured into the San Gabriel Valley, snatching up readily-available land for mere dollars an acre. As Harold D. Carew writes in A History of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley (1930), “the once proud domains of the Spanish dons fell prey to enterprising Americans who had been steadily coming into the country since word flashed around that James W. Marshall had discovered gold at Sutter’s Fort.”

In some sense, Lamanda Park’s development resembles one of the opening chapters in John Steinbeck’s California novel East of Eden: “When people first came to the West […] and saw so much land to be had for the signing of a paper and the building of a foundation, an itching land-greed seemed to come over them. They wanted more and more land—good land if possible, but land anyway.”


Interior of the former Warner’s Egyptian Theater, 2316 E. Colorado Boulevard. (Photo via LoopNet.)

L.J. Rose, a German immigrant, purchased the 1,300 acres that would become Lamanda Park for less than $2,000, and later sold and subdivided his property at a tremendous profit. (On the L.A. County Assessor’s website, certain blocks of East Pasadena are still labeled “L.J. Rose’s Subdivision of Lamanda Park.”) At the same time, Mexican immigrants from the state of Chihuahua began arriving in the 1880s, founding one of the earliest Mexican-American barrios in the San Gabriel Valley near the present-day corner of Foothill Boulevard and Kinneloa Avenue.

Today, Lamanda Park still has an abundance of historical riches, both old and new. These include the oldest standing In-N-Out Burger in California, built in 1952, a former livery stable built in 1900, and the 1925 Warner’s Egyptian Theater, still preserved behind a nondescript façade at 2316 E. Colorado Boulevard.

Lamanda Park has seen no end of interesting historical twists and turns, from enterprising socialist newspaper owners to a saloon culture run amok. This week, we take a look at more intriguing stories from Lamanda Park’s history…

Mr. Capra Passes Through

Train Station 1953

Lamanda Park’s Santa Fe train station, corner of San Gabriel Boulevard and Walnut Street, 1953.

In April 1936, spectators in Lamanda Park flocked to see the arrival of the Hale Telescope lens at the town’s Santa Fe train station. Flashbulbs popped and film cameras rolled. As one newspaper at the time noted, “Lamanda Park station probably won’t know so much excitement again—even when it masquerades in the movies!”

It’s not exactly clear what movies the station “masqueraded” in, but ten years later, in May 1946, filmmaker Frank Capra decided to use the same depot in his classic film It’s a Wonderful Life.

There was a “cosmic coincidence” to this: Capra was a good friend of astronomer Edwin Hubble who personally supervised the arrival of the telescope lens, and thus may have paid attention to both the scientific and artistic potential of the occasion.

Director Frank Capra, 1937. (Library of Congress.)

Director Frank Capra, 1937. (Library of Congress.)

In the 1940s, Lamanda Park remained relatively untouched by modernity and was thus a perfect choice to represent the fictional Bedford Falls, New York, the setting of It’s a Wonderful Life. The film itself spans the years 1919 to roughly 1945, and the scene at the train station takes place in 1932. To duplicate a slightly earlier time, Capra’s production crew found a vintage 1921 steam engine for the scene rather than the diesel engines that were becoming more popular by the 1940s.

The California background behind the station presented a challenge, however. As Michael Willian explains in The Essential It’s a Wonderful Life: A Scene-by-Scene Guide to the Classic Film (2006), “Capra had to keep the shots for this scene fairly tight due to the presence of several palm trees on the depot grounds. Palm trees simply would not do for a scene that is supposed to take place in New York.”

Former Lamanda Park resident Jody Lorin, who was 11 at the time, still remembers when the film was shot. “I was on my way home from school,” she recalls. “I think I got a brief look at [James] Stewart. I waved and he waved back. Everything was roped off, so you couldn’t get near the actors. One of the neighborhood boys found a bag of popcorn used as one of the props in the movie. He was passing it around until someone noticed it had trash in it. It must have been sweepings from a theater.”

Bedford Falls

Lamanda Park doubles as “Bedford Falls” in It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946.

Photographer Stan Kistler, who specialized in train photography, captured the station as it appeared while the film was being shot, and a print of this photo surfaced in 2010, when blogger Lindsay Blake at I Am Not a Stalker found one at Lamanda Park’s own Whistle Stop train store. In December 2010, Blake published the photo along with her own account of the train station scene with “then-and-now” photos, widely drawing attention for the first time to Lamanda Park’s “walk-on role” in It’s a Wonderful Life.

As an addendum, it’s worth noting that Frank Capra spent part of his college years in nearby Sierra Madre while attending Pasadena’s Throop Institute. His daily commute by either Red Car or motorcycle probably took him right by the Lamanda Park station. Some people even believe Sierra Madre or Lamanda Park may have been part of the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the fictional New York town depicted in the film.

Earthside Nature Center

Earthside Nature Center, 2014. (Photo by Zenia Pollard.)

Earthside Nature Center, 2014. (Photo by Zenia Pollard.)

“We need the tonic of wildness,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. “We can never have enough of nature.” This was the philosophy behind Earthside Nature Center, created on the outskirts of Lamanda Park in 1971.

Today, the center stands derelict behind a chain-link fence just south of Del Mar Boulevard, but decades ago it was a carefully-tended enclosure of California native plants that included black sage, phacelia, lupine, wild iris, and poppies. It had “leaf-strewn paths” and “a serene pond under spreading oaks and sycamores,” according to a 1987 L.A. Times article. “Inside this magic kingdom, ” wrote the paper, “it is shady and cool and the only sounds are the crunching of leaves and the chirping of birds.”

At the outset, it was a 3-acre dump filled with refuse, old cars, and part of an old house. Then, in the late 1960s, the City of Pasadena donated it to a group of naturalists that included Arcadia horticulturalist Kevin Connolly and nature writer Elna S. Bakker.

Signs identifying long-gone plants still stand today. (Photo by Zenia Pollard.)

Signs identifying long-gone plants still stand today. (Photo by Zenia Pollard.)

Through donations and volunteers, they succeeded in transforming it into “a microcosm of the California plant world” that delighted school groups and tourists alike.

Both Connolly and Bakker died around the time the center closed, in 1995, but not before it was awarded the American Horticultural Society’s Award for Urban Beautification.

Today it’s overgrown with weeds, but still dotted with small signs identifying vanished plants. The center’s motto, hung on a long-gone sign, was “Look, Listen, and Let it Live.”

(Author’s note: special thanks to Michael Coppess at East of Allen blog for tipping us off to this hidden part of Pasadena history.)

A Few Buildings From the Neighborhood…

Lamanda Park Branch Library (1966) – 140 S. Altadena Drive

Lamanda Park Branch Library, 140 S. Altadena Drive - December 1966.

Lamanda Park Branch Library, 140 S. Altadena Drive – December 1966.

“Though one-story, the massive concrete post-and-lintel frame makes this building seem monumental,” states An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles by David Gebhard and Robert Winter. “The interior is well-planned for use and beauty.”

The second of two Lamanda Park libraries (the first one looked like this), this small branch library was designed by architectural firm Pulliam, Zimmerman & Matthews, and opened in October 1967. That year, incidentally, Pasadena was voted most well-read city in the nation.

The building is listed on the L.A. Conservancy’s website as a classic example of the Brutalist style of architecture. Lead architect James Pulliam was known for his “cut in box” style. “He was very much a Pasadena person and a gentleman, quiet and direct but strong,” said Los Angeles Herald Examiner architecture critic Joseph Giovannini in Pulliam’s 2006 obituary. “His work was thoughtful, like he was.” The obituary notes that Pulliam was also responsible for guiding the direction and design of the 210 Freeway when it went through Pasadena.

Co-designer Mortimer J. Matthews, who served as Pasadena mayor from 1974-1976, was notable for his “arresting roof lines,” while Bernard Zimmerman was “utterly convinced of the rightness of a stringent brand of Modernism—its social as well as its formal principles,” according to KCRW architecture critic Frances Anderton.

“The library building is a simple concrete box clad in textured brown brick,” explains the L.A. Conservancy. “The recessed main volume, with its simple dark glass door entrance and unornamented windows, beckons patrons in with the promise of a cool and silent reading environment. This clean, rational building in the trees manages to complement its neighborhood despite its stark Brutalist horizontality and materials.”

In 1969, it won an award from the Concrete Industry for “creative use of concrete.” More significantly, it is one of the last local landmarks to bear the name “Lamanda Park.”

Lamanda Park Municipal Light and Power Substation (1933) – 162 N. Altadena Drive

Lamanda Park Municipal Light and Power Substation. (Photo by Zenia Pollard.)

Lamanda Park Municipal Light and Power Substation. (Photo by Zenia Pollard.)

The Lamanda Park Substation building looks like it belongs in a movie. The front is sadly locked up, however, and though power lines and transformers still stand behind it, the Spanish-style building appears derelict, destined for an unknown future.

It was designed by architect Robert Ainsworth in 1933, cleverly combining Romanesque, Spanish Colonial and Second Renaissance Revival Styles in a mix that the California Historical Resources Inventory describes as “Mediterranean eclectic.

Ainsworth left his distinctive architectural stamp all over Southern California, designing over 20 homes in Pasadena between the 1920s and 1950s, as well as the Hasting Ranch Branch Library, Cleveland Elementary School, and a quaint Sierra Madre fire station. The Pasadena Star-News characterized his style as “French-Mediterranean […] accented by a California feeling.”

Stay tuned next month as we continue our ongoing feature on Lamanda Park…

7 Responses for “Digging Up Secrets in Lamanda Park (Part 3)”

  1. Nick says:

    This series brings to vivid life a long ignored and neglected Pasadena neighborhood. Fascinating.

  2. Sid Gally says:

    It was a mirror blank, not a lens, for the Hale Telescope. I was there when it arrived.

  3. Fascinating stuff here. I grew up in Hastings Ranch 1966-1996. Please include more on the railroad that paralleled Walnut.

  4. I used to drive over those tracks in the 1980’s, at high-speed up Allen in my Buick. Being 16 yo, I imagined getting air as I flew over the (raised) street!

  5. Jan Strutt Hart says:

    The father of my Eliot Jr. High classmate, Peggy Woolf, was the editor and publisher of the
    Lamanda Park Herald, rival newspaper to the revered Pasadena Star News and the morning newspaper, Pasadena Independent.

  6. Lynn Anderson says:

    The original Lamanda Park Santa Fe station looked very similar to the Santa Anita station last preserved next to the Arboretum in Arcadia, in a style replicated all over California by the railroad. Lamanda Park station once had a water tower just across the tracks to service the thirsty steam locomotives. The foundation lasted long after the tower was torn down. Straddling the water tower was a wye in the tracks allowing trains to turn around.
    A replacement for the old station building must have been built in the later 1950s. It was a very utilitarian looking industrial building, much smaller than the original. The site was the “top” of San Gabriel Blvd. The street ended at the station. As kids, we used to visit the two man staff who did not seem to have much to do. That is how we learned all about raliroads.

  7. Michael Willian says:

    I really enjoyed this piece on Lamanda Park! And thank you for mentioning my book’s discussion of the Lamanda Park station’s cameo appearance in It’s a Wonderful Life. I had a blast visiting the area while researching the book. I love that Capra went to the trouble of filming this scene on location, and in the process preserved a glimpse of the station’s past glory.



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