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Andy Lippman: Museum Is on a Mission to Preserve City’s Past

The museum displays outfits worn in the past by South Pasadena High School cheerleaders

Stroll down Meridian Avenue during a Thursday Farmers Market and your eyes can’t take in everything at one time. There are stalls selling pizza and breads, olive oil and flowers.
The same section of Meridian Avenue is also the site of another smorgasbord — this one of the historical variety.
The South Pasadena Historical Museum, at 913 Meridian Ave., has been serving the just curious and also those who come in for some purposeful research every Thursday during the same hours as the market is open, currently 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The museum is housed in the city’s oldest commercial building, built in 1886.
The displays can be as basic as museum board signs, but the results are educational and fascinating to the visitor who doesn’t know as much as they should about South Pasadena.
“It is a wonderland about the history of the city,” said Colleen (Connell) Boken, archivist for the museum, which officially opened in 1987. “It is like opening Pandora’s Box and finding all of these wonders.”
“We want to share the good, the bad and the ugly of what went on in the city,” added Jenny Bright, museum director and vice president of the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation, which leases the building from the city and runs it.
Bright told me that there are more than 100,000 items currently in the collection, which is growing to the point that Bright and Boken often have to be selective about what they accept.
Sometimes people will find bottles or items under floors or in crawl spaces in their homes. Sometimes, people will find old papers stuck between pages of old books that were lining a bookcase.
The collection starts at the beginning of settlement in the area, with artifacts, such as a stone mortar and pestle, from Native American tribes; and there is a book dating back to 1826.
There is a sign retelling the story of a scout named Daniel Berry, who came to California in 1873, to help plan what was being billed back East as the “Indiana Colony of California.”
Boken showed me a worn coverlet brought from Ohio by someone with dreams of settling in the area.
The dreams and realities of the past are what the museum is all about, and those realities are shown in many ways. There’s a piece of the original city water main; and a full-scale re-creation of what the original mercantile store might have looked like when it operated on the site.
The building has had many occupants including a mercantile, ironworks, a Japanese language school, a church, a Red Cross center, a bicycle shop. Bright told me that there even rumors — fostered by letters — that the building might even have been used as a brothel.
Boken, who is on leave from her studies at the University of Washington, says that she regularly goes through papers that come to the museum, and she wants to facilitate digitizing the material. Boken is from South Pasadena and recalled hearing stories when she visited as a child.
She began archiving in August 2022. She has sometimes worked 20-25 hours a week as an archivist or docent, but health issues have sometimes limited her work schedule.
Boken gets questions almost every week.
“I encourage people to ask me questions, even if I’m just walking down the street,” she said. “I really enjoy sharing the history of South Pasadena. So often, the truth is stranger than fiction, such as the paper I found that noted that the barbed wire from the Meridian Iron Works was sold to a man who took it to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where it was reportedly a witness to the first atomic bomb test.”
The U.S. Library of Congress has records, accessed by the museum, which are old fire insurance maps, which show where various homes and public buildings were located. She told me that residents sometimes look for their current home on the old maps.
Archiving is being done in conjunction with the help of the archives department at the city’s public library.

Museum Director Jenny Bright is next to a full scale exhibit of an early 20th century era kitchen

Bright said that the museum has served to bring South Pasadena’s history to life for schoolchildren.
Alas, the COVID pandemic halted school tours for some time, and Bright wants to get students of all ages flowing back into the museum.
“The kids, when they come in, really get a kick out of the story of the ostrich farm,” Bright said. “They have no idea that there was such a large ostrich farm here.”
A large panoramic photo of a flock of ostrich is displayed along with ostrich plumes and clothing. There is even a three-seater hand-carved and painted merry-go-round ostrich on display in the front window of the museum.
Ostrich feathers were fashionable around the turn of the 20th century and in 1896, the Cawston Ostrich Farm opened on a plot bounded by Sycamore Avenue, Pasadena Avenue and the old Santa Fe railroad tracks.
Visitors could see hundreds of ostriches from babies to adults that were up to seven feet tall. The demand for ostrich feathers faded with changes in fashion and the Cawston Ostrich Farm closed in the mid-1930s.
Gone but not forgotten at the South Pasadena Historical Museum.

Ostrich Farm history is on display at the museum
Train signage decorates the walls at the museum

There’s a lot of train memorabilia, since the old train platform was nearby, including signage that was placed on the back of a train car, and station signs.
Bright’s favorite item is a scythe, which may date to the 1820s and was probably used for harvesting crops.
But, what is a museum without people to see it? Bright said that some weeks, the museum gets 100 visitors, and 350 came during a recent citywide arts event.
About 80 percent of the visitors are locals, while another 20 percent are from as far away as France, Germany and Costa Rica.
Bright has higher hopes for the future. She told me that she wants, in the next year, to open the museum another day each week, and to re-start better outreach to schools, which was halted by the pandemic.
Bright, who has lived in South Pasadena since 2014, also wants to introduce an interactive map of where TV and movies have been filmed around town. Visitors to the museum can pick up a map of historic places.
While traffic at the Farmers Market seems to be ever-flowing, visitors to the museum come in spurts. When I visited last week, the first half hour, it was just me, Bright and Boken. But, as I later turned from reading a sign, there were eight people looking at exhibits.
Admission is free, but there is a donation jar just inside the museum and you can also donate by going to the website of the South Pasadena Historical Foundation
( or by attending one of the foundation’s special open houses.
Be sure to go to the back of the museum and you can see a re-creation of what a kitchen might have looked like in the 1920s and 1930s. Another fun thing to do is to listen to the French National Anthem, played on one of those old Edison crank record players.
So, the next time you go to the Farmers Market for food, stop by the South Pasadena Historical Museum.
It’s food for thought.
“Through our collection, the museum stands as the center of learning and discovery regarding our local history,” Bright said. “It is a place where generations can share their thoughts and ask questions. Alongside the public library, the museum serves as a living and ever-evolving portrait of South Pasadena history.”

Foundation’s Aim Is to Protect and Preserve

The South Pasadena Preservation Foundation is dedicated to educating people on the historical resources in the city.
“We are an advocacy group. Our responsibility is to tell the story of South Pasadena and also to work with the city to show the value of our historic resources,” said Jennifer Trotoux, foundation president.
“We speak up when historic properties are in danger. We speak on behalf of the public.”
The foundation showed its mettle in the successful campaign to keep the Interstate 710 from going through or under South Pasadena.
Trotoux said the foundation is currently working with the city to make sure that historic homes, saved from destruction, can be properly rehabilitated and that the money from the sale of these homes can go toward providing affordable housing.
Trotoux has spent her career in historic preservation. She is currently director of collections and interpretation at the Gamble House, the nationally known Craftsman home in neighboring Pasadena.
People in California have learned a lot about saving homes and buildings instead of tearing them down in the name of progress. Now, they must start expanding that knowledge to include homes and buildings built in the 1950s and 1960s, she said.
“One place that is true in South Pasadena is Raymond Hill where there are a lot of mid-century apartment buildings,” said Trotoux, who has lived in South Pasadena since 2013. “That is part of the architecture in this city that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.”
The foundation, which has more than 100 members, is hoping to increase awareness by hosting more open houses, such as a recent fundraising event at a historic home on Oaklawn Avenue. Trotoux said that the group hopes in the future to host four to six such events per year.
“We want to hold more lectures and tours and have people meet other people to hear how they have competed their own projects,” Trotoux said.
The foundation also wants to expand the hours of the city’s historical museum and also to continue outreach to South Pasadena schools.
These events, she said, have awakened residents to how much history surrounds them.
“They are pleasantly surprised that the community is so well-cared for,” she said.
For further information about the foundation or to make a donation, go to

First published in the January 19 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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