Oak Knoll, an Ideal Environment for Homes

by Tim Gregory

When the William R. Staats Company of Pasadena began marketing lots, its sales brochure assured potential buyers with the above statement that the new Oak Knoll neighborhood, a former sheep ranch, was indeed destined to be one of Pasadena's most prestigious residential neighborhoods. Its hilly, grass-covered terrain, pierced here and there with canyons full of oaks and sycamores, had a magnificent view of the Sierra Madres (as the San Gabriel Mountains were then referred to). The Red Line street railway could whisk businessmen to downtown Pasadena, yet returned residents could enjoy a peaceful, almost bucolic, life far beyond the dust and noise of the city.

The Spanish had used the area as grazing land adjacent to the old grist mill ("El Molino Viejo") which had been built to serve the Mission San Gabriel in 1816. In 1886, the first subdivision plan for Oak Knoll was devised, featuring wide curving streets that followed the contours of the land- an idea recently made popular by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted advocated abandoning the traditional grid system of street layout and blending new suburbs into their environment thereby preserving trees, natural contours, and views. Unfortunately, the original Oak Knoll plan dies prematurely when the real estate market went bust throughout Southern California shortly thereafter.

About twenty years later, responding to a new land boom, William R. Staats resurrected the original plan of curving streets, although they were all re-named. In partnership with A. Kingsley Macomber and Henry Huntington, some of whose ranch property was included in Oak Knoll, Staats began an advertising campaign in 1905 which attracted many of Pasadena's wealthy residents and winter visitors who had been living in the city along such high-end thoroughfares as South Orange Grove Avenue. Oak Knoll could boast not only beautiful, peaceful surroundings and views, but underground utilities, modern road improvements, and custom-designed street lamps.

Perhaps the strongest impetus to neighborhood development was the construction of the Wentworth hotel which promised to attract even more well-heeled visitors to Oak Knoll. Built in 1907 for General Wentworth and designed by Charles F. Whittlesey, the hotel sadly met the same fate as the original Oak Knoll plan - it suffered financial failure and closed soon after opening. But Henry Huntington, convinced that a hotel would be a fitting social center for the new neighborhood, stepped in and purchased the property. He commissioned famed architect Myron Hunt to design additions and alterations. The Huntington Hotel re-opened in 1914 with a large crowd attending its first-day festivities. the hotel has flourished ever since, later as the Huntington-Sheraton, the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel, and currently the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa. The only period of inactivity began in 1985 when its owners, claiming insurmountable seismic damage and outdated amenities, closed the hotel. Follow a vote by Pasadena citizens to allow demolition, much of the old structure was replaced and re-opened in 1991. Its exterior closely resembles the appearance of the original building and some of Myron Hunt's "lost" features, such as the Mission Revival porte cochere at the entry, were restored. Hidden away at the rear of the hotel along Huntington Circle are a number of "cottages" originally built by long-term hotel guests who preferred to have their own independent living spaces designed by well-known local architects.

During the 1920s, often referred to as Southern California's "golden age of architecture," Oak Knoll continued to grow, its large lots filling with the works of some of the region's greatest architects. Although build-out of the original subdivision was pretty well accomplished by the time construction petered out with the Great Depression, the post-World War II years saw some of the estate-sized lots subdivided as newer houses appeared in the canyons and in former garden areas.

Some historical pundits have called Oak Knoll a "petting zoo" of great architecture, which is actually a compliment. It is one of only a few neighborhoods in Pasadena that has preserved almost all of its original great houses in a multitude of styles, most of which are still viewable by the casual stroller, not shut off from the street by tall hedges and walls. Most consultants agree that Oak Knoll would be eligible for listing as a district on the National Register of Historic Places if a majority of the property-owners were agreeable to it.

A complete list of significant architects and their work that populate Oak Knoll is not possible here, but some highlights appear below.Pasadena Heritage and the Oak Knoll Neighborhood Association from time to time sponsor walking tours of the area, including some interior showings, which give visitors and residents alike a renewed appreciation of the neighborhood's unique natural setting and its beautifully-designed buildings.