Although the construction of La Casita del Arroyo (the little house on the Arroyo) was not to take place until 1933, the planning for it began many years earlier. It was first mentioned in the minutes of the Pasadena Garden Club on January 28th, 1917, less than a year after the Pasadena Garden Club was formed. “Mr. Emil Misch, eminent landscape architect and park expert, addressed the club on the subject of the Naturalistic Treatment of Landscape, with special reference to Parks. He illustrated his talk with slides of park views from various sections of the Country, and concluded his presentation with familiar scenes from our own Arroyo. Mr. Misch had just been retained by the Committee of the Pasadena Civic Federation for a survey and suggestive plan for Arroyo improvements.”
In 1920, the President of the Club, Judge Waldo, asked the Club take an active role either in the work of reforestation [after forest fires] or in the beautifying of the Arroyo Seco. The Club voted to ask the Park Commissioners to set aside an acre of land in the Arroyo to be known as the Pasadena Garden Club Acre, and to plant this land in native shrubs and flowers in whatever manner would be agreeable to the club.
The Commissioners were agreeable to the project, and asked that Myron Hunt, a member of the Pasadena Garden Club and a distinguished architect be the consultant for the project. On May 29,1920 Myron Hunt brought the membership up to date on plans for the Arroyo Seco. “The city of Pasadena has acquired all the land in the Arroyo south of the Colorado Street bridge, but with the stipulation that there be no automobile roads and that it be used for park purposes only; the city has control of most of the Arroyo north of the ...bridge and has under consideration the acquiring of all remaining private holdings...municipal golf links are to be laid out along the Arroyo banks, and a great stadium built on the floor of the Arroyo north of the Linda Vista bridge suitable for the New Years Day games and large enough to accommodate the crowds.”
Little about Garden Club plans for the Arroyo is mentioned for nearly a decade.
Funds for designing and constructing buildings in Depression-era Pasadena had dried up. Determined to employ as many workmen as possible, architect Myron Hunt and his wife, Virginia Pease Hunt, established Block-Aid in 1932 whereby a volunteer in each block of the city applied to neighbors for funds to employ out-of-work construction workers.
At a Garden Club meeting on April 30, 1932, the Club reinstituted the idea of the wild flower sanctuary, citing the enthusiasm with which it had been received, and announced that a committee would be appointed to consider it. At a consequent Board meeting, the use of Block-Aid labor was recommended to clean up the Arroyo, without waiting for the decision regarding location of Sanctuary. Caroline S.G. Munro was named Chairman of the Wild Flower Sanctuary Committee. The sanctuary would be located probably in the Arroyo and t the work would be done by the Block Aid. Members were asked to increase their Block Aid donations, if possible, owing to the very serious conditions. A path was to be cleared from California Street to Colorado Street Bridge, work being done with Block-Aid funds. Decided to appropriate $100 of the Garden Club fund to buy plants for the sanctuary.
The City Directors approved the Arroyo Seco for the location of the Sanctuary. On October 26, 1932, “Regarding the Wildflower Sanctuary, Mrs. Munro read a letter from the United Unemployment Relief Fund, “urging that contributions to Block-Aid be continued till January 1.” On November 1, 1932 a garden fair for unemployment relief was held at the home of Mrs. John Barber. Then on November 23, 1932, Mrs. Munro reported on the proposed shelter to be erected in the Arroyo. Mr. Foote stated that the money available from the bazaar would be close to $1100. The Board voted for the Club to cooperate with the City in erecting this building. Only three days later, on November 26, sketches were passed at the Club’s Annual Meeting showing “tentative plans for the pavilion in the Wild Flower Sanctuary.” It appears that the entire project was completed by the end of 1932 as an item in the 1931-1932 Annual Report states, “For its major project for the year, and to aid unemployment, the Club raised a generous sum and undertook the planting of a Native Shrub and Wildflower Sanctuary along the borders of the Arroyo Seco.” It is interesting to note that annual expenditures for the Club included a payment of $104.40 to the legendary nurseryman, Theodore Payne for “Arroyo planting.”
On December 10, 1932, Mrs. Munro, President of the Club called a special meeting to order at the Athenaeum at Caltech. “A report was read by the President covering the work being done in the Arroyo Seco by the Garden Club. Special reference was made to the proposed house to be erected by the Club, in connection with the City Park Department and the Block-Aid for the relief of unemployment. On January 10, 1933, Mr. Myron Hunt, who had generously offered his services, presented and explained the plans for the building, answered questions and received suggestions. Mrs. Hunt thanked the Club for its substantial assistance to the Block-Aid work.
In order to give these unfortunate people something to do, the leaders of the Pasadena Garden Club, along with Myron Hunt, conceived the idea of building a much-needed small community meeting hall on city-owned land in the Arroyo. Hunt designed the building...pro bono publico. There was no money for materials so boulders were collected from the Arroyo...to build the walls and lumber was salvaged from the Velodrome which had been constructed in the nearby Rose Bowl for the bicycle races during the 1932 Olympic Games. In an interview for an article which appeared on January 10, 1933 in the Pasadena Star News, Myron Hunt noted that the Club’s initial donation of $2,000 was “the largest organized subscription to the Block-Aid.” He commented that the Club’s additional contribution of $1,500.00 provided adequate resources to complete construction and added that “...arrangements have been made to...purchase locally, glass, nails, doors, plumbing fixtures and other material for the clubhouse.” Additional wood for construction was salvaged from fallen trees higher up the canyon at Charlton Flats camp. The article included the information that the clubhouse was to be “available for meetings of the Garden Club and other groups.” Park Superintendent, Gilbert I. Skutt said that “a charge be made for the use of the building which will maintain its upkeep so that it will not add to the maintenance costs of the city...The Garden Club will pay for the use of the building whenever it holds meetings there and that each group renting the clubhouse will pay for its lights, gas and janitor service”...Mr. Skutt added “that the clubhouse will not be available for dances or parties, but will be used solely for more serious events.” The Pasadena Garden Club was joined by the Diggers Garden Club in providing funds for “widening of the bridle trails in the Arroyo, for clearing out poison oak and dead shrubbery, for building rock work walls and for planting native shrubs and trees.”
The Pasadena Garden Club celebrated the opening of La Casita on April 28, 1933 with an orchid show held during the Convention of the California Federated Garden Clubs. The show was well patronized on both days. Afterward, the Pasadena Garden Club held a series of Sunday afternoon art exhibitions with hostesses serving tea to those who came. These exhibits featured the work of well-known California artists, particularly landscapes in oil and water colors. Today, the California Art Club, in conjunction with the La Casita Foundation holds a Paint-Out every 18 months to feature the works of local artists.
In the decades following the creation of La Casita, the Pasadena Garden Club continued in its efforts to beautify the city. Their many efforts included projects at the Old Mill and the Huntington Botanical Gardens. This little meeting hall which for the previous 37 years had served its purpose as a community resource and garden center, was recommended to the Planning Commission as a Cultural Heritage Landmark by the Cultural Heritage Committee.
In 1975, the members of the Garden Club were contemplating what their Bicentennial gift to the city might be. Although the building was owned and maintained by the City, it continued to need the Garden Club’s help. Once again, the Club voted enthusiastically to support the refurbishment of La Casita. A benefit called Bouquets and Gardens, an invitational garden tour, was initiated by the Club to raise the necessary funds to “sandblast the fireplace to return it to its natural stone and plaster, stain the cross beams, remove the plywood panels and paint the walls white. The committee planned to paint the chairs and tables and replace the carpeting.” Funds raised by the successful home tour and tea which was held on March 30, 1976 generated $12,000.00 to restore the little house. “The Garden Club is providing the direction and the funds while the city furnishes the painters, electricians and carpenters. The work is being done under the approval of the city’s Design Committee and the Cultural Heritage Commission.” “When the task is completed, the building will contain new furnishings highlighting melon colored draperies and an Axminster carpet.”
In the early 1980’s, erosion threatened the structure and the garden was in need of restoration so, in 1981, the Pasadena Garden Club hired landscape architect Isabelle Greene, granddaughter of noted architect Henry Greene, to develop plans to upgrade the grounds surrounding the building. It was the first public garden designed by Greene. “The garden would be in my original homeland of Pasadena, on the edge of the Arroyo Seco where I had played among the stones as a child and first seen pollywogs. The site tugged at my heartstrings; it spoke of my grandfather, of the Craftsman era, and all that was lovely and embedded in my childhood memories. It spoke of the best of all possible worlds...I remember feeling quite muddled as to how to speak to more than one person at a time. Of course I needed to talk over what the relationship would be, how I would proceed, what the needs would be, and what the required results would be. It was a totally different frame of reference and I had no solid ground to put my feet on. I guess I felt it all had to be decided at one sitting – rather like going on stage for a one-time performance. Yet I found the garden club ladies very engaging, in fact, I loved them immediately.”(Greene,p.2)
“From the street, the visitor’s...view was a garbage dumpster...Beyond the dumpster stood an enormous dead oak tree...Festooned on [the] roof was a large air-conditioning unit and an upright conduit to which were attached...electrical wires leading in all directions. Moving around to the rear door of the building there were several more garbage cans...a railing of chain and galvanized posts, and an assemblage of meters, pipes, boxes, valves and other utilitarian elements that had encrusted the entire southern end. Looking back toward the street, one’s eye traveled over...asphalt [and] some patchy lawn.” (Greene, p. 4) “Thus ensued a long and lively relationship with the ladies of the Pasadena Garden Club. I had never seen anything like this group: bright, determined, and knowledgeable: so well-informed and so diplomatic that the project carried a momentum no matter what the obstacles that came before it.” (Greene, p. 6) No sooner were the plans approved, when in May 1985, an arson fire severely damaged the structure. The walls still stood, but the building was gutted. Sadly, Alson Clark’s painting was lost. While city officials expressed uncertainty about whether or not funds would be available to reconstruct La Casita after the fire, Tim Andersen, head of Pasadena’s Cultural Heritage Commission at the time said, “no matter what the extent of the damages turns out to be, La Casita will not be demolished.” Fire insurance paid for much of the restoration and donations came from community members. Mrs. John Barber who hosted the bazaar in 1933 to raise funds to build La Casita, sent a check for $5,000.00 to help rebuild it.
It would take nearly $150,000.00 to repair the building that was built and furnished for $3,500.00. Momentum for the project continued due to the untiring effort of Lisa Clement. She convened the La Casita Restoration Committee, to oversee repairs in accordance with Secretary of the Interior Standards. The Committee included members of the Pasadena Garden Club, William Ellinger III, AIA, from the Planning Commission, and Peggy Stewart of both the Pasadena Garden Club and Cultural Heritage Commission. Local architect, Conrad Buff III, sat on the Committee and donated design services.
By 1988, the newly designed garden was finished. Greene, along with Pasadena landscape architect Yosh Befu and contractor Julian Damas, collaborated to “create a garden in which the choice of plants reflected her long interest in California native species and those of other Mediterranean climates while the irrigation system demonstrated Befu’s expertise in the latest water-saving technology.” The goals of the garden inspired by the Garden Club and executed by Greene and Befu were to create an educational resource for the community which would demonstrate good garden design, sound horticultural practice, range of water use along with water-saving irrigation, to promote plants which survive in a Mediterranean climate and to increase community awareness and enjoyment of the Arroyo Seco.
“A garden such as La Casita belongs to and is created by everybody. It lives, and fulfills, and creates a life far beyond the initial vision. Furthermore, it is necessarily managed by a series of people. As club members rotate in and out of offices and responsibilities they put their unique touch to it. Even the basic maintenance is done by [a] series of gardeners, each one with different abilities.” (Greene, p. 13) t the March 25, 1986 meeting of the Pasadena Garden Club ,there was a motion for creation of an endowment fund which would be set up as a public foundation., The La Casita Foundation was established by members of the Pasadena Garden Club in 1988 to maintain the gardens for public enjoyment. The Pasadena Garden Club maintained the gardens until 1994. But responsibility for them has been assumed since then by the Foundation with substantial funds and labor given by the Club, its members and community donors.
In 1990, an application for support was made to the Founders Fund of the Garden Club of America to develop the education potential of the water conservation garden. The Pasadena Garden Club and La Casita were granted the title of Runner Up and an award of $5,000.00.
On February 23, 1997 the gates for La Casita were dedicated in honor of Ruth Chandler Williamson and Martha March Chandler and their families. The gateposts were crafted by Robert Cook and the gates were fabricated based on designs by Isabelle Greene. They replaced galvanized posts and chains.
In anticipation of the year 2000, the Garden Club of America encouraged all member clubs to plan a millennium project. La Casita Foundation and the Pasadena Garden Club created the butterfly sanctuary as the Garden Club’s effort. On April 28, 1999, it was dedicated to Mrs. Kingston “Veva” McKee, former Foundation and Garden Club president as a memorial to her love of nature and her vision for the garden at La Casita.
The California Arts and Crafts Movement traces its roots along the banks of the Arroyo Seco back to the 1890’s. This natural landscape has inspired the works of Franz Bischoff, Jean Manheim, Edgar Payne, and Hanson Puthuff among many others. In 2000, the Pasadena Garden Club sponsored “Vistas of Historic La Casita and the Arroyo” which was a one-day opportunity at La Casita for artists of the California Art Club to display and sell their work to the public who had paid a small admission price to view it. Through the continued leadership of Elaine and Peter Adams of the California Art Club and the support of La Casita Foundation, in 2007 and 2008, artists such as Peter Adams, Tim Solliday, William Stout and others have come to spend a week to “Paint Out” in the Arroyo. At the end of the week, they are invited to sell their work at La Casita for their own benefit and in support of the California Art Club and La Casita Foundation. The affiliation has been profitable for all. It is worth recollecting that the first art exhibitions at La Casita were held upon its opening in 1933.
In April of 2008, the nomination of the central and lower Arroyo Seco in which La Casita is situated, by Pasadena Heritage to the National Register of Historic Places was approved by the State Historical Resources Commission.
The Foundation celebrated the 75th anniversary of the creation of La Casita on October 5, 2008. The Mayor of Pasadena, Isabelle Greene, Eudie Moore, members of the Foundation, Garden Club and Art Club were on hand to hear the Mayor proclaim:
“I, Mayor Bill Bogaard, on behalf of the City Council, do hereby salute The Garden Club and La Casita Foundation for their generous contributions over the years and celebrate La Casita as an outstanding public/private partnership and an extraordinary resource for generations of Pasadenans still to come.”
In 2014, a much-needed renovation was completed and included a new roof, flooring, kitchen, bathroom and fireplace gas logs. The renovation was made possible with funds from the City of Pasadena and La Casita Foundation.
La Casita was named by the Garden Club of America at their Centennial, as one of the five most important Community projects in the nation, and as a model for private-public cooperative projects.
The Foundation, along with the Pasadena Garden Club, continues to improve our relations with our City partners and to continually perfect this unusual private-public partnership that has held La Casita del Arroyo in good stead. We continue to make improvements to the gardens as needed and rely on our Community support to maintain the gardens at La Casita for the public to enjoy.