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California road trip: Art and culture bloom in the City of Roses

While it would be lovely to be in town for the Rose Parade, any time is a good time to visit Pasadena — especially if you are interested in architecture, the arts and culture.

A California road trip can be surprisingly varied. You could drive the Golden State by hugging the Pacific Coast shoreline, where artsy beach communities abound, or head inland to culturally and historically significant communities.

In a three-part series, travel writer Kim Pemberton explores Pasadena, Laguna Beach and San Diego — all within one hour drive of each other, but each with its own unique character.

It’s mid-October and I’m walking through a California rose garden, in sandals and a light summer dress, admiring pink roses in full bloom, in the aptly nicknamed “City of Roses.”

Pasadena’s city hall and its not-so-secret garden also has a gargoyle water-spouting fountain in its beautiful inner courtyard, both of which I find oddly familiar (unlike the hot weather I’m experiencing, which is definitely not happening back home.)

I later learn that this iconic building, with its distinctive dome, has been featured in movies from Charlie Chaplin’s 1940s satire The Great Dictator to more recent television sitcoms like Parks and Recreation and The Big Bang Theory.

Turns out Pasadena issues about 500 film permits annually to movie and television crews.

It’s easy to see why Hollywood fell in love with this inland California suburb, located just 16 kilometres northeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Despite its close proximity to L.A., Pasadena has managed to retain a small-town vibe with wide, tree-lined streets, manicured lawns, clusters of historic homes and of course the picture-perfect city hall, built in 1927, with its abundance of roses.

There will soon be even more roses on display when the annual Rose Parade, celebrating its 135th anniversary this year, takes to the streets.

New Year’s Day in Pasadena is all about floral floats, followed by the college football Rose Bowl game, which is expected to attract about 800,000 spectators this year.

While it would be lovely to be in town for the Rose Parade, thanks to its Mediterranean-like weather, any time is a good time to visit Pasadena, especially if you are interested in architecture, the arts and culture.

During my recent three-day visit, I toured The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, home to The Blue Boy painting and early editions of Shakespeare’s works, the Norton Simon Museum, with its extensive European art collection from the 14th to 20th centuries, and Gamble House, one of the best examples of an Arts and Crafts residence in North America.

Located on Millionaire’s Row — so named because it reportedly had 15 millionaires per mile in the early 1900s — Gamble House is unique among house museums since all of its interior furnishings were also donated by the Gamble family to Pasadena in 1966.

This architectural gem and many of its custom furnishings were designed in 1908 by brothers Charles and Henry Greene for Mary and David Gamble, of Proctor & Gamble Co., who had the home built as their winter residence.

In an attempt to keep this popular National Historic Landmark building’s interior in good order (handwoven rugs, Tiffany lights, and rare artisan pottery pieces are seemingly everywhere), the number of visitors is limited to 40,000 annually, says docent Nancy Marino, who leads our one-hour tour inside the property.

Born and raised not far from Gamble House, Marino says as a child she just remembers it as “the big brown house” on the block but has come to appreciate its architecture, and significance to the city of Pasadena, after volunteering there.

“The Gamble House has become my passion,” says Marino. “For me it opened up a whole new thing to be interested in. Most of our docents have no architectural background but after learning about Gamble House, you never look at a building the same way.”

One of the most striking features about the house is its triple front door and transom, featuring a Japanese black pine motif stained-glass window. The Japanese architectural influence was very strong in the Greenes’ architectural practice.

Marino recalls a special moment when she was at the house early one morning to see the sunrise through the custom glass entryway.

“It was magical,” she says.

While the Gamble House incorporates many Japanese influences, Pasadena brought an entire ancestral residence from Japan to The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Garden.

The 320-year-old, 3,000-square-foot Japanese Heritage Shoya house was once the centre of a small farming village in Marugame, Japan, but was dismantled, relocated and restored at its new home in the Huntington’s Japanese Garden — an effort eight years in the making.

It was opened to the public Oct. 21.

The journey to bring the house to Pasadena began after a chance encounter between Robert Hori, the gardens’ cultural curator and program director, and its former owners, Akira and Yohko Yokoi of L.A.

“There were a lot of negotiations and with a 320-year-old house like this, there were no blueprints, so you can’t just go to city hall and say I’m thinking of bringing this house. You actually have to have the blueprints, so we had to go to Japan, study the house and figure out how it’s built, and once we had that, then we could begin talking to the U.S. agencies,” he says.

Now that it’s at The Huntington, Hori says it helps educate the public about Japan’s contribution to world architecture.

“There’s so much we can learn from the past. Japan has a long tradition of wooden architecture. The oldest wooden structures are in Japan and they go back 1,200 years,” he says.

“We’re looking at using this house and the property as a study piece to think about how other cultures thought about living sustainably … one concept you find in this house that is now expressed throughout southern California is having indoor and outdoor living.”

The Japanese Garden at The Huntington is one of 16 themed gardens on the 87-hectare property, which was once the private residence of railway tycoon Henry Huntington and his avid art-collector wife, Arabella.

Another one of my favourite gardens at The Huntington is the Desert Garden, with more than 2,000 species of succulents and desert plants. Both the Japanese and the Desert Garden were first planted over 100 years ago.


Where to stay

The Pasadena Hotel and Pool is located along Pasadena’s Rose Parade route, and a short walk to great shops, cafes and restaurants. Taking up a full city block, the recently renovated 161-room hotel, built in 1926, has a Roaring Twenties vibe in its public spaces that includes a large rooftop pool with a view of the San Gabriel Mountains and a cosy inner courtyard decorated with comfy wicker furniture and palm trees — a quiet oasis in the heart of downtown.

The Langham Huntington, first opened in 1907 and originally named Hotel Wentworth, was purchased by Henry Huntington and renamed. If you can’t afford to stay at this five-star hotel, it’s a gorgeous place to visit, which is what I did by stopping in for afternoon tea. As with afternoon tea at Victoria’s Empress Hotel, visitors enjoy a choice of teas along with crustless sandwiches, scones, Devonshire cream and sweets served on a three-tier cake stand while enjoying a garden view from the hotel’s gently-sloping, hilltop setting.

Where to eat

Granville is a modern yet casual restaurant with a spacious rooftop patio, great for enjoying a cocktail while watching the sunset. There are more than a dozen gin specialty cocktails to choose from on the menu. I also ordered the “sustainable” grilled salmon with creamed corn and red bell cajun sauce served over mashed potatoes. Absolutely delicious and cooked to perfection.

How can you not order charcuterie at Agnes Restaurant & Cheesery? This eatery and cheese shop, owned by a local cheesemonger and his wife, has the most well-labelled dairy products I’ve ever seen in one place. It’s great to be able to purchase the same cheese you just enjoyed from your cheese board on site, since chances are high you won’t have leftovers. Lots of dinner menu options as well, from pastas, duck and west coast bass to ribeye steak, best enjoyed in the quieter back section of the restaurant.

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Visit Pasadena and Visit California, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue. Next week, part two of the California road trip series explores Laguna Beach.