Sunset Travel and Recreation

Historic Arroyo Seco

Arroyo Boulevard. A gorgeous 3-mile drive or bicycle ride on the edge of the Arroyo from Colorado Street in Pasadena south to State 110 features numerous Craftsman homes and overhanging oak trees.

Gamble House. It's considered the best preserved of the Greene and Greene homes. Nearby Arroyo Terrace also has several notable examples. Docent-led one-hour tours 12–3 Thu–Sun; $8. 4 Westmoreland Place, Pasadena; (626) 793-3334 or

Judson Studios. The stained-glass company and its landmark building are open for occasional public tours. Call for an appointment. 200 S. Ave. 66, Pasadena; (323) 255-0131 or

Pasadena Heritage Society. Programs include annual fall Craftsman Weekend lectures and home tours. (626) 441-6333 or www.

Pasadena Historical Museum. Good background on city history in a Beaux Arts mansion. 12–5 Wed–Sun; $6. 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena; (626) 577-1660.

Raymond Restaurant. Although there are plenty of good dining options in the area, the Arroyo spirit lives on in this traditional American restaurant located in a Craftsman bungalow. Closed Mon. 1250 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 441-3136.

Rose Bowl. Built in 1922, the stadium will host the college national championship football game on January 3 at 5 p.m. 1001 Rose Bowl Dr., Pasadena; (626) 577-3100.

Spirit of the Arroyo
A century-long marriage of nature and art in Pasadena

The natural Arroyo Seco | The impresario of Arroyo Culture | Map

bike route
Photographs by David Zaitz
Oak-shaded bike routes edge the Arroyo.
By Matthew Jaffe

The Arroyo Seco flows out of a tight canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena, a modest mountain creek with few hints of greatness. This time of year, it runs lazily over granite boulders and nurtures a streamside forest of alder, willow, and oak, some leafless under a bright winter sun. Here along the Gabrielino Trail, young sycamores sprout from parent trees whose roots drink from the stream; a water-loving bigleaf maple thrives next to desert yucca, a plant that grows along the canyon's sunny slopes.

The forest scatters the sunlight, illuminating shallow pools where rainbow trout dart in and out of the shadows. The sharp taps of a woodpecker high up in an oak tree echo across the canyon, and in the distance Switzer's Falls can be heard plunging 90 feet down before the stream resumes its 22-mile run to its confluence with the Los Angeles River.

Free of the urbanization that surrounds the stream's lower half, these headwaters offer the purest vision of a place that at one time so inspired craftsmen, architects, painters, and writers that their loose circle became known as the Arroyo Culture.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Arroyo Seco (the term, meaning dry brook, is used to refer both to the stream and to the canyon through which it flows) was the center of a rare convergence of art and nature, where a place and the works of its residents became virtually inseparable. This cultural tradition is one that visitors still can find here in landmark Craftsman-style homes, influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement; in the exquisite stained glass created at the Judson Studios; at the museums and cultural institutions of the Arroyo; and in the Arroyo Seco itself, a stream that has endured a century of change with its spirit intact.

Raymond Restaurant
Craftsman style and atmosphere are on the menu at the Raymond Restaurant.

Building from nature

The Arroyo Seco emerges from the San Gabriel Mountains onto a broad alluvial plain above Pasadena, running past the Rose Bowl through Brookside Park. On a bluff above the park is one of the great collections of Craftsman homes in the country, many of them designed by the brothers Charles and Henry Greene. Shingle-sided, with wide eaves and decorative brick- and stonework on fireplaces, foundations, and walkways, these houses effortlessly blend elegance and rusticity in a style that has become closely linked with Pasadena and the Arroyo.

The epitome of this architectural genre is Greene and Greene's Gamble House. Its blend of simplicity and meticulous workmanship, an artful reinterpretation of nature, is characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement—an attempt to preserve a purity in daily life by connecting people to age-old craft traditions and the environment around them.

Turn-of-the-century California seemed an ideal place to achieve the movement's goals, and the Arroyo became the Arts and Crafts center of Southern California. While the Gamble House has Japanese and even Swiss chalet influences, it is also unmistakably of the Arroyo: Its architecture is a testament to the brilliance of its creators and the beauty of the landscape surrounding it.

In the entry doors, a great leaded-glass California live oak connects the house to the trees found along the Arroyo Seco's course. Sleeping porches and verandas offer views sweeping out over the watershed and up the face of the foothills of the San Gabriels. In the rear of the house, the fish pond features boulders carried up from the streambed. And when Charles Greene describes his vision of an ideal garden, he could just as easily be describing the Arroyo itself: "A secluded spot sheltered but not gloomy. ... Where one could look out into the bright sunlight on groups of flowers, and where one may hear the tinkle of water and see the birds drink. Where the shapely branches of tree or bush cast their lacy shadows fitly across a winding path."

Generations of inspiration

Located on the western edge of Pasadena, the Arroyo offered artists inspiration and an affordable place to live. Some artists also drifted to other neighborhoods; the painter William Lees Judson found a house overlooking the Arroyo in Garvanza (now Highland Park).

"He fell in love with the clean slate of this place," says David Judson of his great-great-grandfather. "This was an ideal spot for an artist. There was no lack of material to paint. There was the light. The nature. The air. And it was warm." Judson eventually became the founding dean of the University of Southern California's School of Fine Arts, which opened in a building across from his home.

USC is long gone from the Arroyo, but another part of Judson's legacy lives on. Schooled in the movement's principles his whole life, Judson passed on those ideals to his three sons. "He believed that art should be practical as well as beautiful," says David Judson. "And if you could live by your art, then you were really an artist."

Judson Studios

A colorful panel of stained glass gets a close inspection at Judson Studios.

The painter saw a need for a stained-glass studio in Los Angeles, and his sons moved west to open the Judson Studios in 1897. You can visit the studio, which still operates out of a 1910 building that once housed the school on the edge of the Arroyo; David Judson and his brother, Bill, represent the fifth generation of the family to work here. Inside the studios, an 80-year-old kiln fires the glass at 1,200° while workers meticulously apply lead to stained-glass pieces, using techniques little changed over the 500-year history of stained glass. Along one wall, where plaster has been removed in the course of restoration, the Arroyo boulders used in its construction have been revealed.

Seeing the studio, you can have little doubt that David Judson reveres the tradition he is heir to. The Craftsman way, he explains, is by no means an anachronism but of great relevance to our own times: "Lives are chaotic. There's too much information. People long for simplicity, and so there's a growing respect and appreciation for Craftsman ideals. It's a kind of spiritual experience without being denominational."

A river still runs through it

Behind the Judson Studios, the Arroyo Seco is now contained in a concrete flood-control channel. And the sound you hear is not the rush of water to the sea but cars on the Pasadena Freeway (State 110). Originally named the Arroyo Seco Parkway, it opened in 1940 as Southern California's first freeway. But the Arts and Crafts movement's love of nature is far from gone—there is a growing movement to restore the stream's ecosystem.

Timothy Brick, board member of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, stands at the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and the Los Angeles River. Not only the two waterways flow through here — so do freeways, pipelines, power lines, train tracks, and city streets. The sylvan scene of the upper Arroyo seems far more distant than 22 miles, yet Brick and others see this place as the site of a future park where Southern Californians could reengage with the waterways that helped give birth to the city of Los Angeles.

"People have lost the sense of the natural geography of where they live," says Brick. "One hundred years ago, they would have said they live near a particular river. Now they'll say which freeway they are near. That's robbed them of something very important."

The Arroyo Seco Foundation and a group called North East Trees have begun an ambitious tree-planting effort here. More than 20,000 natives, including sycamore, oak, and walnut, have been planted along the Arroyo Seco. A watershed restoration project will determine the feasibility of removing the concrete channel in places and bringing back the natural stream, while maintaining the Arroyo's flood-control role.

The plan is visionary but also doable, say Brick and Lynne Dwyer, executive director of North East Trees. Most of the Arroyo is publicly owned. Many of the area bridges were built when the stream was still free-flowing, which means they could accommodate a resumption of natural flows.

Dwyer adds that there are still many people who recall the world of the Arroyo before it was channelized in the late 1930s. Her father used to retrieve golf balls from the creek at the course near the Rose Bowl. Her great-grandfather was an artist and associate of journalist Charles Fletcher Lummis, who was one of the earliest voices to urge preservation of the Arroyo Seco. "A lot of people have the Arroyo in their heart," says Dwyer. "I know. I feel like it's in my blood too."