The Oak Knoll Neighborhood
by Ann Scheid
“Oak Knoll” is an apt description of the original landscape of the area, which was used as grazing land during the days of the Spanish ranchos. The earliest maps of Oak Knoll shown an oak-strewn mesa set amidst wooded canyons, one of which leads down to the Old Mill (“El Molino Viejo”), an outbuilding of the San Gabriel mission. The water of the canyon stream powered the grindstones of the mill. The history of Oak Knoll is inextricably tied to the Old Mill and to the Huntington Hotel, both of which have played important roles in the development of the area.
Oak Knoll was first subdivided in 1886 as part of the great 1880s land boom in Southern California. Surprisingly, the 1886 map of Oak Knoll shows essentially the same plan as exists today; only the street names are different. Oak Knoll Avenue was called Montezuma Street, Wentworth was named Madison, Pinehurst was called Logan and Hillcrest was named Oak Knoll. The map shows the location of all the oak trees as well as ranch buildings and vineyards near the present site of the Huntington Hotel. The streets followed the curves of the canyon rims, making the subdivision Pasadena’s first to follow the new planning ideas initiated by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the Chicago suburb of Riverside in 1869.
Olmsted, who is best-known for his pioneering landscape plan for New York’s Central Park, advocated the integration of new suburbs and sub-divisions into the natural environment. Most American cities were planned on a rectilinear grid which was an easy and efficient way to divide up the land but which ignored natural features such as hills, valleys, trees, rivers and views. By the turn of the century curvilinear designs on hilly sites with boulevards and extensive landscaping had become the pattern for wealthy residential districts, and Oak Knoll was no exception. Today the curved streets of new subdivisions across the country reflect this association with status but now rarely have anything to do with the topography of the site.
When the 1880s boom collapsed without a single lot sold, Oak Knoll reverted to pasture until 1905, when an ambitious real estate developer, William R. Staats, took advantage of a gentler, more sustained Southern California real estate boom. Staats joined forced with Henry Huntington, whose ranch bordered the Oak Knoll district, and with A. Kinglsey Macomber, a partner in Staat’s company. This time Oak Knoll caught the favor of those who could afford to live anywhere, even on prestigious Orange Grove Avenue. The first was Carl Lunkenheimer, a Cincinnati industrialist, whose Mission Revival house at 1215 Wentworth Avenue is the oldest in the neighborhood. Not far behind was Robert Roe Blacker, a Michigan lumber magnate who first commissioned an Italian-style villa but then turned to the Greene brothers for his family’s radical California Craftsman mansion set in a Japanese-style garden.
L.V. Harkness, head of Standard Oil, abandoned his Orange Grove mansion for a new house in Oak Knoll. Oak Knoll’s desirability was touted by promoters with the words: “Those who can afford to live in Oak Knoll cannot afford to live in any other place.”
Staats marketed Oak Knoll for its views, its hundreds of spreading live oaks (which he also showed on his 1906 subdivison plan), and for its proximity to the Wentworth (later Huntington) Hotel and to the Pasadena Country Club golf links, whose clubhouse was in the Old Mill. Oak Knoll provided all the advantages of country living in the city. All streets, curbs, sidewalks and utilities (underground) were installed, and a distinctive street lamp was designed for the area. Staats’ plan spared two live oaks by creating a traffic island on Wentworh Avenue which still exists today. Huntington enhanced the district – where he built two houses for members of his family - by refurbishing the Wentworth Hotel, which reopened as the Huntington Hotel in 1906. The hotel quickly became the center of Pasadena society. Huntington also ran his Pacific Electric commuter rail line down Oak Knoll Avenue to serve the new subdivision and the hotel, and in 1925 founded his own City of San Marino on his adjacent estate.
Building continued apace through the 1920s and Oak Knoll’s exclusive status attracted wealthy residents who could afford prestigious architects. Today, Oak Knoll is studded with the works of Southern California’s best architects. Besides five structures by the Greene’s, Oak Knoll boasts houses by the Heineman brothers, Wallace Neff, George Washington Smith, Roland Coate, Gordon Kaufmann, Reginald Johnson, Marston & Van Pelt, and Gregory Ain (recently demolished). Subdivision of the larger properties has continued to this day, and houses now nestle along woodsy Canon Drive in the former backyards of the mansions on the crest above, and along Hillcrest Place, a subdivision of the old Huntington property. Many of the larger properties have lost their gardens to the subdividers, but Oak Knoll still retains the status and prestige of former times.