A few weeks ago we walked through a neighborhood of beautiful old houses in Pasadena. In two short hours, we viewed beautiful architecture, visited with a neighborly woman who enjoyed telling us about her 1886 house, and went on an unplanned self-guided tour of a courthouse that has been in its past life both a grand hotel and a hospital for World War II soldiers. Then an unpleasant encounter reminded us of the poisons being injected into communities across the country.
At this time of year the daytime temperatures are usually too high in Pasadena, California for a leisurely stroll in the middle of the day. Thus we were delighted to discover that the weather forecast predicted a day of perfect walking temperatures. This was to be our last daylong outing before taking our daughter, a History major at Pomona College, back to school for her junior year. We parked under the shade of an oak tree and donned our hats. I brought along my Japanese parasol to use on the sunny side of the street. Our plan was to weave our way up and down four side streets off of Grand Avenue, a street with grand old mansions.
We learned from a plaque outside one small house that it had been moved to its current site in 1901. As we continued down the sidewalk, we exchanged friendly greetings with an elderly woman on a walk. As we stood in front of another house, she joined us and told us stories about the house and stories about herself. She was born in 1924. Her house, which she was proud to point out to us, was built in 1886. Next to her house, the previous owner had been cantankerous and she and her husband were glad when he moved to Las Vegas. She pointed to another house and said it had been recently painted and she loved the color. Then she told us her husband had passed away in March. They used to go on longer walks together but now she takes 12 short walks each day in front of the same houses we had been admiring. Earlier in our conversation, she had asked where we were from. When I said Los Angeles, she seemed a little disappointed. She told me she thought we were European. We talked a little longer before wishing each other a nice day.
Soon we came upon a grand house on Grand Avenue with a bronze plaque inset into its brick wall that stated “THIS HOUSE WAS BUILT IN 1893 AS YOU SEE IT.” We observed how one short statement has the ability to communicate so much. We continued along the street, stopping to appreciate details in other houses: carved woodwork, framed windows, ornate doors with leaded glass, and beautifully tended gardens.
Before long, we came upon a huge, old structure that was not a house. Our daughter Natalie guessed it might have been a hospital. I wondered if it might have been a hotel. In fact, it had been both. By the 1930s, the Vista del Arroyo Hotel and Bungalows was a grand resort hotel, where affluent guests came to socialize and stay. In 1936, a young man, a recent graduate of Stanford Law School, stepped off the train from Tucson, Arizona and went straight to the hotel to visit his cousin who was staying there as a member of the Stanford football team playing in the Rose Bowl. It was during the Great Depression and the young man looked rumpled. The doorman looked him up and down and refused him entrance. His name was Dick Chambers and he would remember both the slight and the building. Seven years later, during World War II, the hotel had become the Pasadena Area Station Hospital (eventually named the McCornack General Hospital) and provided long-term care of soldiers wounded in the Pacific Theater. Its elegant dining room became the mess hall for patients and staff. After the hospital closed in 1949, it became a general-purpose federal government building. It stood unused and in increasing disrepair from 1974-1981. But the young man who was refused entrance in 1936 due to his rumpled attire was now chief judge of the Ninth Circuit, responsible for all of the circuit courts including their space needs. He believed the old hotel-hospital could be turned into a courthouse. In 1979, Congress appropriated $9.8 million to seismically upgrade and restore the building and in1981, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It reopened its doors in 1985 as one of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The three of us walked up the same steps Dick Chambers had walked up in 1936 and entered the front door to step inside. Instead of a doorman, three U.S. Marshalls greeted us. They invited us to walk through the courthouse (after going through security). Because cases were not being heard that afternoon we were able to peer inside each of the courtrooms. This is one of the most interesting things we have ever done. We stopped to read the Bill of Rights on a large bronze plaque in the lobby and this inspired the three of us to have one of the numerous conversations we have been having about the state of our country. Ironically, we will always remember this conversation, just the way Dick Chambers always remembered being turned away at the front entrance of the hotel, because of what happened next.
We walked along Grand Avenue feeling inspired. One hundred yards from the courthouse doors, a car rolled up alongside us and stopped. Bill would later tell us that he had noticed the car pass us a few times and was ready to ask the driver if she was following us for a reason. She said, with not an ounce of friendliness: “Are you looking for something?” Pamela answered: “No, we’re just taking a walk.” She answered: “Well, we don’t like seeing people pointing at the houses. There’ve been robberies.” Did she really think we were robbers scoping out our next job? Pamela said: “We are pointing at houses because we love architecture.” She said, “Well, the neighbors don’t like people walking through our neighborhood.” Our anger was boiling inside us. Pamela later said she could hear Michelle Obama’s voice in her head: “When they go low, we go high.” She answered: “Well, that’s interesting because we had a lovely conversation with one of your neighbors.” The woman didn’t know what to say to that. She took one more look at us and drove off.
For a few seconds, we stood on the sidewalk stunned. Then we noticed Natalie’s eyes brimming with tears. She said, “I am so angry. All I can think about is how many people go through this all of the time, each and every day without a break.”
In 1993, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Pasadena was named the Richard H. Chambers U.S. Court of Appeals Building in honor of the man who was once turned away from its front door based on a judgment a doorman made on appearance. And on one August day in 2017, what started out being a story about a lovely walk through a stately old neighborhood became, in one brief minute, a reminder that none of us is immune from the dangerous fear of otherness that has invaded our country.
Our hope is that future historians will be able to write about how we did not allow this gross and indefensible fear of otherness to win. Go high.