City Hall and preservationists push to bring Julia Morgan’s long-vacant YWCA back to life
By Joe Piasecki 08/06/2009
The years have not been kind to architect Julia Morgan’s once stately Pasadena YWCA building, a symbol of civic pride that now stands in the shadow of City Hall as little more than a monument to neglect.
Weeds grow tall near the rusty metal sign that had marked its entrance along South Marengo Avenue. Windows are broken or boarded up. Litter is strewn where flowers once grew. An outdoor play set rusts in its fenced-off courtyard, where shopping carts, bottles and other debris mark the hidden encampments of people who are as forgotten as the building, but find their way inside through a missing basement window. An architectural treasure is left to rot.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Claire Bogaard, wife of Mayor Bill Bogaard and cofounder of the preservation group Pasadena Heritage. One of the organization’s first acts more than 30 years ago was successfully campaigning for the building’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
But in recent weeks, city officials have taken a renewed interest in the three-story Mediterranean-style structure that was built in 1921 — just two years after Morgan, California’s first celebrated female architect, completed the palatial Hearst Castle on the Central California coast for press baron William Randolph Hearst. The building has been left vacant for more than 15 years since its sale by the YWCA to Trove Investments, a land-holding company owned by Hong Kong businesswoman Angela Chen-Sabella. Company officials could not be reached for comment on this story.
Earlier this year, city officials cited the structure for code violations and resumed stalled negotiations with Trove to either purchase the building or help broker an agreement for its restoration and reuse. The idea was discussed in a June closed-session meeting of the City Council, but specifics of those talks are being held close to the vest.
“It’s an increasing tragedy that the owner will not take proper action. The council is anxious to see progress made on that property,” said Mayor Bogaard, with Planning and Development Director Richard Bruckner adding only that the city is “interested in a process that would see significant investment in an historic revitalization of the building.”
A lot of ideas
A decade of false starts tells us this is anything but a done deal. Plans for converting the building’s upstairs dorm rooms, indoor swimming pool bathed in natural light and spacious gymnasium area under wooden trusses into a boutique hotel have fizzled twice, and more parking would be required for offices or housing.
“Over the years they’ve received several offers and we’ve been eager to get something moving there. The conundrum that any property owner would have is it’s going to take millions of dollars to rehab this historic building,” said Eric Duyshart, a business development administrator with the city.
Meanwhile, “It’s become an embarrassment to have this really important building right across from City Hall so in need of help,” said Pasadena Heritage President Sue Mossman. “I fear every day something will happen to it as it sits empty and looking pitiful, right in the heart of the city.”
Before Trove took over the building, it held offices for organizations including Women at Work and the Doo Dah Parade.
The latest reuse concept for the historic Civic Center building is its possible conversion into city office space. For his master’s degree thesis, Cal Poly Pomona architecture student and Pasadena resident Milad Sarkis drafted plans to restore the YWCA as a new headquarters for the Pasadena Water and Power Department (which currently leases space on South Los Robles Avenue), sharing the proposal earlier this year with both the American Institute of Architects and development officials at City Hall.
“The idea is that the public retain some kind of ownership of the facility and having PWP would fit a historic sense of having the building in public service,” said Sarkis, who would revive its courtyard as an educational xeriscape garden to encourage water conservation.
According to a 1920 news report in the Pasadena Evening Post, YWCA volunteers at the time raised $350,000 to build the structure on land given to them by David Gamble of Procter and Gamble, who resided in the Gamble House. The fundraising campaign slogan: “By the people of Pasadena for the people of Pasadena.”
Sarkis was granted permission to enter and photograph the building last year during a taping for the television series “Heroes” and said he discovered a still-sturdy building despite some serious damage from squatters, nesting pigeons and rainwater leaking in.
City Redevelopment Manager Dave Klug attended a presentation by Sarkis, but no final decisions have been made about the building and “there are lots of ideas floating around,” he said.
“We’ve been trying to resurrect good-faith negotiations with the owner on some options the city is trying to understand — lease prices, purchase prices and the value of the property,” explained Duyshart.
In terms of its impact on the city’s character, the YWCA building is a priceless piece of history, said Ann Scheid, who oversees the Huntington’s Greene & Greene collection for the Gamble House and is the author of two books about Pasadena, most recently Arcadia Publishing’s “Downtown Pasadena’s Early Architecture.”
Only the 1910 YMCA building next door and the 1914 post office on Garfield Avenue predate the YWCA — City Hall was finished in 1927 and the Civic Auditorium in 1932 — making it perhaps the most influential structure in the development of the city’s first Civic Center plan.
“The very layout of the Civic Center was determined by the location of the YWCA and the post office and they really determined the city’s architectural style. It’s a key building in the Civic Center and one of Pasadena’s greatest architectural achievements,” said Scheid.
The Morgan building’s influence on the very design of the city core dates back to the City Beautiful movement, a push for urban beautification through the building of grand public structures that was introduced to America at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, explained Victoria Kastner, Hearst Castle’s official historian and an expert on the life and architecture of Julia Morgan.
“One of the most important things about the Pasadena YWCA is it was meant to be part of an ensemble of public buildings, and the saddest thing is that it’s now derelict and nearly abandoned instead of playing this important role,” said Kastner.
It’s also one of the city’s first examples of affordable housing.
“YWCAs were an extremely important social response to young women going to work in cities in the first part of the 20th century and not having a safe and affordable place to live, being forced to take rooms at boarding houses, which meant associating with unsavory people. The YWCA gave young women who were entering the workforce a safe and chaperoned place to live,” said Kastner.
Morgan, who Kastner described as the nation’s “first great woman architect — the first to compete directly on the same playing field as men,” was heavily involved with the Young Women’s Christian Association, building a dozen YWCAs up and down the state in addition to her numerous other public and commercial projects, including the Mission Revival Los Angeles Herald-Examiner building in downtown LA.
Morgan’s connections with the YWCA were rooted both in her affiliation with philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, and her own role as a career woman in a male-dominated world. Morgan, who studied engineering at UC Berkeley, was the first woman to graduate from the world-class École des Beaux-Arts architecture school in Paris — lauded worldwide at the time as a monumental achievement for womankind, said Kastner.
“Pasadena is extremely lucky to have a Julia Morgan building, and one that is still largely intact,” said Mossman. “It’s a simple building, but elegantly expressed. It’s functional, yet handsome, and reflects the influences of the 1920s. When [Morgan] was designing Hearst Castle she kept redesigning to what her client wanted, which was very extravagantly detailed and flamboyant in many places. Buildings like this YWCA, where Julia Morgan herself determined the design, reflect her true nature: an engineer as well as an architect, who understood structure and believed beauty can come from an honest expression of form and function that says everything it needs to say in a quiet, dignified way.”
So, said Claire Bogaard, “It’s a double blow to have our only Julia Morgan building, a building in the middle of the Civic Center and on the National Register of Historic Places, in such very bad shape. When Julia Morgan built something, she built it very well. The bones of this building are strong.”
But this isn’t the end of the story, suspects Kastner.
“It would have made [Morgan] sad to see her building in this state, but the good news is it’s in a town where people really care about architecture,” she said. “I don’t know when or how, but it’s going to have a renaissance, and that would have made her happy.”