Travel: Museums show Pasadena is about more than just Rose Bowl

Southern California town is home to trio of museums

Published: March 12 2014 | 11:55 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:29 am in

Mention Pasadena to any Iowan, and one thing will likely come to mind: the Rose Bowl.

But Pasadena, Calif., population 140,000, represents much more than the meeting of two football teams on New Year’s Day.

Iowans especially may be interested to know that Pasadena is not far from the Getty Center in Los Angeles where the University of Iowa’s “Mural” by Jackson Pollock was restored.

It will be on display starting Tuesday through June 1.

Pasadena — one of southern California’s best tourist destinations — is home to a trio of museums all within 10 minutes or less by car. While each has a different emphasis —­ paintings, books, gardens and architecture — they all evolved from a passionate purpose.

Norton Simon Museum

  • Find it: 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, Calif., (626) 449-6840,; open noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and noon to 9 p.m.; $7 to $10 for adults and free for children.
  • Upcoming exhibitions: “In the Land of Snow: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas,” and “Face It: The Photographic Portrait.”

On 8 acres close to downtown, the museum began as the Pasadena Art Institute in 1969. Then in 1974, Norton Simon, looking for a place to house his then 8,000 works of art, agreed to take over the financially struggling art museum. He changed the name and turned it into the world-class Norton Simon Museum.

Born in Portland, Ore., in 1907, Simon made his fortune by seeing opportunity where others couldn’t. After investing several thousand dollars to take over an insolvent juice bottling factory, he eventually created the Hunts Foods empire, among others. As his wealth grew, he began devoting more time to his passion: collecting art work.

Norton Simon’s eclectic tastes ranged first with the Old Masters, then on to Modernists and lastly to South Asian. Especially on the main floor, the art rivals any collection of paintings anywhere. After all, where can three Rembrandts be viewed in one American gallery?

French Impressionist Edgar Degas was among Simon’s favorites, and during his 30 years of collecting, he assembled 17 paintings, 14 prints and drawings, and a phenomenal 72 sculptures, representing every medium of work by this artist. “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen” (1878-81) is especially charming with a gauze tutu and silk hair ribbon.

Fortunately, his legacy didn’t end with his death in 1993. Six years later, his widow, former actress Jennifer Jones Simon, spearheaded a renovation of the building. The architect was Simon’s friend Frank Gehry, world renowned architect of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

 Other activities

Stroll the garden with its pond surrounded by Henry Moore sculptures or stop for lunch at the Garden Cafe. Guided tours are scheduled throughout the day. Since the museum doesn’t loan or borrow artwork from other museums (with the exception of the Frick, New York, or the National Galley, Washington, D.C.), you need to put this museum with its $100 million art collection on your not-to-miss list.

Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens

  •  Find it: 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., (626) 405-2240,; open noon to 4:30 p.m. weekdays (closed Tuesday), 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $12 to $23 and free on the first Thursday of the month.

For some people, their collections become their passions. Henry Huntington (1850-1927) was no exception. At the age of 60, this California railroad and utilities magnate sold many of his holdings to devote the rest of his life to his passion: books. To house his library as well as his art acquisitions, he and his wife, Arabella, built their home, which has been opened to the public since 1919.

The Huntington Library is known worldwide for being available for research. Among the collection’s rare books are the Gutenberg Bible, Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” and Shakespeare’s original folios. Many visitors to the art galleries will recognize the iconic paintings of “The Blue Boy” (Thomas Gainsborough) and “Pinkie” (Thomas Lawrence).

Other activities

While some may prefer theinteriors of the library, the botanical gardens often attract the most visitors. Could the temperate California climate be responsible? Open to the public are 120 acres with more than 14,000 kinds of plants. These are organized into a dozen thematic areas, such as the Shakespeare Garden, the Rose Garden and the Chinese Garden.

A favorite is Liu Fang Yuan (the Garden of Flowing Fragrance). It is one of the largest and most authentic Chinese gardens, outside of China. On March 8, new additions to this area were opened for the first time to the public. In addition to enjoying the gardens, one can listen to traditional Chinese music each Wednesday from 1 to 3 p.m. and have lunch or tea in one of the restaurants.

The Rose Garden Tea Room is located in the center of the botanical gardens overlooking 3 acres of roses. High tea includes a pot of tea, a basket of scones and a central buffet of finger sandwiches, cheeses, fruit, salads and petite desserts. Best of all, you can return as often as you like. Reservations for the tea are required and may be booked online. Cost is $29.50 for adults, $14.99 for children ages 4 to 8 and $7.50 for ages 2 and 3.

Heritage Square Museum

  • Find it: 3800 Homer St., Los Angeles, (323) 225-2700,; 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday; $10 adults, $5 children
  • Upcoming events: April 5, Soirees Mystique: An Evening of Victorian Enchantment; April 12, Annual Vintage Fashion and Tea; April 13 to June 16, “Fashion is Historical” Exhibition.

This living history museum will appeal especially to the “Downton Abbey” set. In a small parklike setting, it brings the late 1800s alive with eight Victorian buildings from various Los Angeles neighborhoods. In their original locations, each was threatened with demolition. To conserve these historically significant houses, a group of dedicated local citizens formed the Cultural Heritage of southern California. Houses representing various types of architectural styles were relocated and accurately restored, down to the pattern of their wallpaper. The film “Saving Mr. Banks” showcased two of the houses: the Hale House and the Shaw House.

The lifestyles of the owners and unique architecture of each home range from upper class opulence (Perry House) to the unusual (Octagon House), and each has its own story. The John Ford House, for example, has an exterior with extensive hand-carved embellishments. Since Ford was a woodcarver, this structure gave him an opportunity to showcase his skills to his customers. In addition to the unique architectural aspects, many also include furnishings reminiscent of the time.

The last structure on the walking tour is Colonial Drug, which replicates an 1800s drugstore. The counter soda fountain and more than 80,000 medical remedies of the time remind visitors the “good old days” may not have been so great. Nostrums containing morphine for teething babies and cocaine drops for toothaches proved to be best-sellers.

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