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Altadena's Struggle to Age Gracefully

Altadena Heritage fought the McMansion epidemic of the 1980s. But that was only the beginning.

In the latter part of the 20th century, McMansion fever spread like wildfire throughout the Southwest. Historic houses were razed, properties sold and subdivided to make way for the big new kid on the block. This kid -- the garage Mahal -- could squeeze its tremendous stuccoed girth into any lot, no matter how small.

Towns around the San Gabriel Mountains met the epidemic with varying degrees of resistance. Some succumbed without protest, others proved surprisingly immune.

As early as the 1960’s, Altadena showed signs of susceptibility. We had already lost many fine examples of 19th and early 20th century architecture; first to natural disasters – fires, mainly -- then to apathy and neglect. 

Grand estates of a bygone era need repairs, deep pockets, and a whole lot of dusting. After most if not all the millionaires had left Millionaire’s Row, their former homes sank into one state of decline or another, some to the point of no return. That’s when developers could make their move, snap up land at bargain prices, and divvy up lots. Through it all, Altadena remained remarkably passive – inattentive, even.

The threat to Scripps Hall shook things up. In the early 1980s, this 1905, three-story mansion and the acreage on Mariposa, once the home of publisher William Scripps, seemed another destined for the chopping block.

Maybe because the grand estate next door was now a subdivision, or maybe because Altadena had lost so much already, it suddenly struck a lot of townsfolk that history, the living part of our history, could be bought, sold, and disappear in the blink of an eye.

In an effort to save Scripps Hall, volunteers formed the Heritage Committee, an arm of the Altadena Town Council. Once mobilized, they helped broker a deal with the Pasadena Waldorf School, allowing the mansion to stay intact, but repurposed. This was an early and successful example of what’s now known as adaptive re-use.

In successive years, as other areas of historic significance came under siege, the Heritage Committee decided it could swoop in faster and with greater effect if members formed an autonomous nonprofit, outside the Town Council’s control.

And so Altadena Heritage was born, a quarter century ago. It’s still an all-volunteer group, made up of history-loving, hill-hiking, tree-hugging preservationists and do-gooders.

In the past couple of decades, through code changes or just by raising public awareness, Altadena Heritage has helped to preserve the historically significant.  Take, for example, neighborhoods selected as Altadena Heritage Areas (AHAs!).

Los Angeles is the only major county in California without any historic preservation designation,” says Michele Zack, writer and long-time Heritage member. “Usually, cities take care of this. Altadena, as an unincorporated community within LA County has no power to institute rules and restrictions, but what Altadena Heritage can do is exert influence and raise consciousness. We can honor and publicize architecture and neighborhoods worth preserving.”

If you haven’t walked through the AHAs lately, or ever, you really should. For a primer on Janes Village, Norwic Place, Country Club Park, North Garfield, and the Gregory Ain-designed homes on Highview, start here.

But AH activism extends beyond historic architecture. Preserving natural beauty is another major concern.

Early this century, more than one developer exploited some glaring loopholes in county codes that could have, would have, allowed stucco structures to march up and down Altadena’s hillsides. In response to the threat, and in conjunction with the county and Town Council, AH crafted an ordinance to curb hillside development. As Altadena Heritage Chair Mark Goldschmidt puts it, “We didn’t want our hills to look like Glendale’s.”

Altadena Heritage isn’t always engaged in a preservation struggle. It enjoys kinder, gentler moments, as well.  Members hold workshops throughout the year on sustainable-living issues, such as water-wise gardening, and urban logging. And they recognize and honor exceptional front yard and streetside landscaping with the Golden Poppy Awards.

But what has this group done for us lately?  If you shop at Altadena’s new Certified Farmer’s Market in Loma Alta Park, perhaps you already know Altadena Heritage stepped in to sponor and hold the permit for the event, after earnest attempts from other quarters had stalled.

“Our main focus is on quality-of-life issues,” says Goldschmidt. “And while our mission includes history and preservation, it’s more than that.

“We’re taking the long view. Altadena’s heritage isn’t only the legacy that was left to us, it’s the legacy we’ll be leaving for the future.” 

Nico August 20, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Nice article. Someone should take a look at the 1900's vintage farmhouse for sale on N. LIncoln, just past the small fire station, and opposite the church. It has an enormous spreading oak in front and a huge lot. I hope there are protections in place for that tree and that someone that loves that home will buy it, not destroy it.
mark goldschmidt August 20, 2012 at 04:13 PM
Thanks for a great article and shout-out for Altadena Heritage. One correction needs to be made: Altadena Heritage did not craft the Hillside Ordinance. What we did was host a round-table at the library to bring people together to discuss what should be done about our hillsides, and from this grew a committee that included many stakeholders. We met regularly for 5 years to study similar ordinances and to work with County Regional Planning. We are proud that we got the ball rolling, but cannot take credit for a joint effort by many, including the Town Council and hillside property owners led by attorney and hillside home owner Patty Mulligan. Interestingly, Altadena Heritage was initially inspired by Julius Shulman, the late famous architectural photographer when he came to our book launch for "Altadena, between Wilderness and City" back in 2004. He warned us that just trying to protect a few old houses wasn't going to cut it, we'd better also make sure we could protect the hillsides that make our community so special.
Laura Monteros August 20, 2012 at 06:09 PM
Norwic Place was the dream of one man who bought the property, and built these small Tudor houses (along with his own) to sell to young couples who might not have large means. At the end of the cul-de-sac is a wishing well. I think his intention was to have the entire street, but the houses on the east side at the entry were built later and are not Tudor. I'm fortunate to have had friends on the street (including the developer,'s wife who passed away several years ago) and have been inside one of the homes. Each one is unique.
L.R. Wright August 21, 2012 at 03:13 PM
Its sad that even back twenty something years ago the Altadena Town council was so far in the pocket of developers and out of touch with the Altadena public that Altadena Heritage had to break away and get out from under their stiffling and triffling control. Finally, the Altadena Town Council have so alientated the public that everybody now knows they represent no one.
SteveB August 22, 2012 at 12:18 AM
Thanks, I had no idea about Norwic village's existence - and it is within walking distance of that other Altadena landmark, the Crater on Lake!
Karin Bugge August 22, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Hah! I avert my eyes when passing the Crater and head straight to Norwic. By the way, the architect of the Norwic cottages, Wilmer Hershey, also designed the Santa Barbara courthouse. Hershey died when he was 31 years old.

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