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How a Former Isolation Hospital Became a Public Library

Apr 20, 2015
Allendale History 4

Allendale Library, 1130 S. Marengo Avenue, circa 1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Allendale Branch Library.)

You can read about infectious diseases at the Allendale Branch Library, but you won’t contract one – I promise. Still, it’s a little unnerving that Pasadena’s smallest branch library was once used as a contagion ward for deadly illnesses, including smallpox.

Built in 1923, the building began life as the Pasadena Isolation Hospital, became a research lab to study parrot fever (psittacosis), then a facility devoted to rodent control, and finally a WWII veterans’ home, before being converted into a library in 1949-51.

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The Pasadena Isolation Hospital under construction, May 9, 1923. (Photo courtesy of the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration.

The building opened as an 8-bed quarantine hospital on November 28, 1923, according to the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration. But neighbors, along with the Huntington Land and Improvement Association and Pasadena Orange Growers’ Association, immediately sued and a Superior Court injunction shut it down on December 24, 1923. “Attorneys for the applicants held that the district in question is a fine residential section, comparable to the Wilshire district in Los Angeles, and that the isolation hospital would be a menace to the public health and to property values,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

Residents had justifiable concerns—most of them had lived through the flu epidemic of 1918-1920, which had killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide, including about a dozen in Pasadena.

During this period of paranoia and fear, “Pasadena required residents to wear face masks in public and arrested more than 60 people without them on the day the law took effect,” according to former L.A. Times historian Cecilia Rasmussen. “When robbers began posing as health officials to get into people’s homes, Pasadena repealed the provision.”

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Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1926. (Courtesy of the Pasadena Public Library.)

Pasadena Playhouse archivist Ellen Bailey explains that actors at Gilmor Brown’s Pasadena Players even had to wear face masks onstage, making for awkward love scenes.

The hospital initially seemed to have been both a waste of time and money, but in May 1925, the California State Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling, and by June of the following year, it once again tried to open its doors. Again, neighbors sued. Despite residents’ concerns, the courts this time ruled in favor of the hospital. “Holding, in effect, that an isolation hospital for the treatment of contagious and infectious diseases is not a menace to public or private health,” reported the L.A. Times, “the California Supreme Court […] refused to enjoin the City of Pasadena from creating one in a residential district.”

In 1930, an outbreak of parrot fever in Southern California sent health officials into a panic. Parrot fever, contracted by inhaling dust from dried bird droppings, is generally accompanied fever and chills, vomiting, diarrhea, and nosebleeds, and can occasionally result in death if untreated. Consequently, sometime in the early 1930s, the hospital was converted into a laboratory to study the disease, which continued to infect people in Los Angeles until about 1933.

In September 1935, the Pasadena Board of Directors briefly discussed turning the hospital into a city prison camp, but this proposal was roundly rejected by taxpayers, and again met with the ire of neighbors. “Mrs. C.E. Smales of 1298 South Marengo avenue asserted she preferred the pest house as the lesser of two evils,” wrote the L.A. Times, “pointing out that convicts are much more liable to walk abroad at night than smallpox patients.”

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The Allendale Branch Library, 2015. (Photo by Matt Hormann.)

Shortly after, the hospital was converted yet again—this time to a facility to study rodent control. Finally, at the end of World War II, it became a home for displaced veterans and their families.

In 1949, plans were finalized to convert the building into a library, a process which ultimately took two years. City architect Walter C. Beckwith oversaw the conversion project, and the library opened to the public on February 5, 1951. Upon its completion, The Pioneer, a magazine published by the Library Bureau, wrote, “The new Allendale Branch of the Pasadena Public Library was easily and effectively adapted to its present use after complete remodeling […] Careful planning has left no indication that this building was ever an ugly duckling.”

Today, the City of Pasadena describes the Allendale Branch Library as,“a unique and exemplary neighborhood center, combining school, library, park and recreational resources.”

Author’s note: Special thanks to Allendale Branch librarian Terry Cannon for contributing research and photos to this article.




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