May 23, 2020

South Arroyo
Desiderio Park, 5/16/2020 (Inktense pencils, Fude Fountain pen and ink on Canson Mix Media paper)

I have a friend who has been dying to take me to a place he goes running in the arroyo near the Rose Bowl. In recent months, before COVID-19 public places closures, he described running past many wonderful sketching spots in the Lower Arroyo Park area. He knew I would enjoy doing some plein air art there. Very recently his beloved arroyo trails have become another “soft open” spot that he can now return to. Of course all who go there must stay 6 feet away from each other and wear a mask. He told me that there were some pretty terrific displays of California and Matilija poppies (also known as the fried egg plant) in the lower arroyo. We made a plan to go there together last Saturday. We’d had a couple warm days and the CA poppies were starting to fade, but there were several wonderful stands of Matilija poppies. (I hope to do a botanical of that native CA flower pretty soon.) And some of the nearby hillsides, shaded by magnificent oaks, were blanketed with nasturtiums. 

Once we had seen the nasturtiums and Matilijia poppies he walked me to the area you see here. It’s part of the Desiderio Park and quite an unusual sight, actually. All of this is in Pasadena and the huge building in the background is the Richard H. Chambers 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Courthouse. And if you thought it looked like an old Spanish Colonial Revival style resort called the Vista del Arroyo Hotel and Bungalows you would be right! It was built in 1903 and my friend told me that in it’s early days midwestern tourists loved to stay there when visiting the area. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many such hotels built at the turn of the last century that are still around. And that would have been the case with this historic building if the federal government hadn’t come on the scene. It seems that during the Second World War it was turned into the McCornack General Hospital. After the war it was then used as a general-purpose federal government building. I guess it fell into some kind of disrepair and in 1985 it was restored and converted to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Courthouse. I couldn’t find any stories about how the federal government came into this lovely SoCal arroyo, but it’s nice to see that the old historic building had not been torn down, but rather recycled for a new purpose. 

But there is much more going in this sketch than an old hotel finding new life. You might ask, “What else could be so interesting?” I’ll tell you, it’s the very unassuming single story bungalows you see in foreground, and here is the story behind those structures. Not so long ago those homes weren’t there, but rather it was owned and home to the Desiderio Army Reserve Center. It had been built during WWII, but had closed in 2005. So, the question became, what should be done with an old government building once it had been emptied of personnel and what ever army stuff was inside. It would be nice to imagine that those structures would have been recycled just like the old hotel. (Actually from what I could see in some old photos, the buildings on site were not historic Spanish Revival architecture, but rather nondescript two story buildings surrounded by a lot of old and cracked asphalt.) At that point it wasn’t clear what the federal government would do with the 5.1 acres. However, the city of Pasadena acquired the property and in 2013 began planning what to do next. In the end the US Army, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), City of Pasadena and San Gabriel Habitat for Humanity raised the old army buildings and put up 9 affordable homes in its place. And the rest would be open spaces and trails for the Pasadena community to use. It is now called Desiderio Park. But the wonder of 9 Habitat for Humanity houses doesn’t end there as 3 of the courtyard bungalows are reserved for vets. Wow! Right? A story where everybody gets something wonderful. Now aren’t these tidy little affordable homes way more interesting and important than saving some old hotel?

CO St Bridge
Colorado Street Bridge (built in 1913)

There is one more image you need to see to get the full effect of Desiderio Park. You need to see the Colorado Street Bridge, it’s just to the left of the scene I sketched. It’s pretty monumental and I think it looks a lot like the aqueducts of Rome. As you might imagine many artists have painted this bridge over the years. And one of these days I plan to go back down there and try a sketch or two. 

But my quick landscape captured a rather perfect day for one CA girl. It was the perfect combination of some of the things I hold most dear here—Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, open spaces with wild flowers, oak trees, time spent with a wonderful CA friend (born in Chicago) with a couple of my beloved palm trees thrown in for good measure.

But maybe my perfect CA day was way more than spending time with a beloved friend in an amazing SoCal spot. Maybe the story was even bigger than CA itself. Maybe it was the realization that sometimes the stars and stripes align and the US Army, HUD, stuffy old Pasadena and Habitat for Humanity could create something pretty wonderful for someone. Now you might think that such a project didn’t really provide for that many people in need of affordable housing, and I thought about that. And then I thought about the Starfish Story. If you don’t know the Starfish Story, look it up. I think you’ll see what I mean. 

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