It’s hardly the most eye-catching building in Pasadena, but I’ve always had a fondness for the small Hill Avenue Branch Library. Situated at the corner of Green Street and Hill Avenue, across from Pasadena City College, the library stands as an unassuming monument to Pasadena’s architectural golden age and is the oldest building in Pasadena’s public library system.
Its history dates to the early 1920s, when the city recognized the need to build a branch library for the growing community of East Pasadena. Using a $50,000 bond, the city bought land from the Giddings family, ranchers who had settled here in the 1880s, and allocated a small portion for the proposed library. It selected renowned Pasadena architect Sylvanus Marston, of the firm Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury, to design it.
The Hill Avenue Branch opened in 1925 to an enthusiastic public, including students from nearby Pasadena Junior College (later PCC), which had begun enrollment the previous year. Marston won acclaim for his design, which was cited by the American Institute of Architects as best small building of its category.
Though hardly a household name, Marston was nonetheless an important figure in Pasadena’s early architectural history, having designed countless Pasadena homes, the Pacific Asia Museum, Westminster Presbyterian Church and Prospect Park’s original portals. Marston had an eye for subtle details, and one of my favorite things about the library has always been the carved stone designs of faces, sea shells and open books that adorn the entrance, which suggest the imaginative possibilities of books.
Entering the library feels more like passing into the large study of some stately Pasadena home. Despite its proximity to the bustle of PCC, it’s a blissfully quiet place to pass an afternoon with a good book (or textbook). One of its distinguishing features is its Asian language collection, with books available in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. On a recent visit, I also discovered a first-rate collection of graphic novels.
Over the years, numerous efforts to consolidate the Hill Avenue Branch with other libraries have fortunately been vetoed. Today, due to the efforts of preservationists, it is designated a Cultural Heritage Landmark by the City of Pasadena. Perhaps the library has remained in existence so long simply because it keeps such a modest profile on the landscape. People tend to take it for granted, sometimes even forgetting it’s there.
Though not as ornate at the original Central Library, which existed from 1886 to 1927, the Hill Avenue Branch, which predates City Hall and the Pasadena Civic Center, remains a small jewel in Pasadena’s literary and architectural crown. Did I mention the books are free?