A city commemoration 90 years ago leads to the founding of the Pasadena Museum of History
In 1924, the city staged a yearlong Golden Jubilee to mark the 50th anniversary of the Indiana Colony’s founding — the perfect time for a Pasadena Chamber of Commerce committee to unveil its plan to create a historical society.
Committee Chairman Thomas D. Allin, a former city engineer and public works commissioner, proclaimed, “The object of the Society is to collect data from our past and to preserve and collect that which will be made today and in the days from now,” according to a document in the museum’s archives.
The Pasadena Historical Society was formally launched on Sep. 9, 1924, during a meeting at the Carmelita Park House (current site of the Norton Simon Museum), with 191 people signing up as charter members. At another meeting on Jan. 27, 1925, nine people were elected to the board of trustees, and Allin was elected president.
“At that time, the society would meet a few times a year, when people would bring in some old photos to show off, dress in period costumes and listen to lectures. The aim was to record and share the city’s history,” says Laura Verlaque, the museum’s director of collections.
The creation of the local historical society, she adds, was part of a national movement in the 1920s, when “a lot of cities were looking back at the past.”
In an effort to create a collection of historic artifacts, Allin called upon the city’s first settlers to donate relics from Pasadena’s early days. Over the years the society amassed books, maps, photographs, letters, documents, newspapers, costumes and jewelry. One of the more valuable items was a piano donated by Jennie Banbury Ford and her twin sister, Jessie Banbury Crank, who, according to “A Birthday Present to Pasadena,” a story appearing in the July 9, 2011, edition of the Pasadena Weekly, were the only pupils of Pasadena’s first school in 1874.
The collection grew so rapidly that the society needed space to store it. “By 1927, there was such a collection that a fireproof filing case was purchased, and in it were stored the most valuable articles. This was kept in Mr. Allin’s engineering office for want of a better place to put it,” states a museum archival document, which outlines the facility’s longtime search for exhibition and storage space.
After the Central Library opened in 1927, the society tried to persuade city officials to let the society use the old library, located at the southwest corner of North Raymond Avenue and Walnut Street. But after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, the cost of renovating the library and making it comply with earthquake standards was more than the society could afford. (The old library was demolished in 1955.)
The society’s collection of valuable relics was stored in private homes until 1932, when staff members began moving materials to the History Room in the newly built Civic Auditorium. In 1955, the city allocated funds from a bond issue to build a history room in the Central Library. On Jan. 26, 1958, 400 people attended the facility’s grand opening ceremony.
Society President Orrin Fox spent five years secretly arranging for the society to acquire a suitable headquarters with adequate storage space. As a result of his efforts, the Paloheimo/Curtin families donated the Fenyes Estate to the society in 1970. The estate comprised the 1906 Fenyes Mansion, along with its gardens, sauna and guest house; the adjacent 1915 Curtin House; and the mansion’s original furnishings, artwork and personal items. The mansion, located at 170 N. Orange Grove Blvd., is open for public tours, as is the former sauna, now the Finnish Folk Art Museum.
In 1993, construction of the current museum and research library at 470 W. Walnut St. was completed, and included storage areas for the museum’s collection. A gift shop, galleries, conference room and administrative offices were added to the building in 2000, and that year the society changed its name to the Pasadena Museum of History.
The sophisticated exhibits featured at the museum are a long way from the modest collections of artifacts initially organized by the society. Executive Director Jeannette O’Malley says the most-attended exhibit was last year’s two-part display of wedding dresses from 1850 to the present. The first part, which featured dresses from 1850 to 1950, showcased dresses from the museum’s holdings.
“Then we followed it with the second half, which was 1950 to the present day, and those dresses were all borrowed. So it brought in local and national designers and individuals who wanted to see the exhibit,” she says. “It married our collection with contemporary themes and that’s something that we want to show, how history continues. It is one of the most important traditions of our museum.”