Vista Del Arroyo
From Hotel to Courthouse
By Bradley Williams
Stanford was playing Southern Methodist University in the Rose Bowl in 1936, and the West Coast team was staying at Pasadena’s finest resort hotel, the
Vista del Arroyo. A recent graduate of Stanford Law School, Dick Chambers, stopped by on New Year’s Eve to visit his cousin on the team. It was the
middle of the Great Depression, and Chambers had just arrived by train from his home in Tucson. The doorman eyeing the rumpled young man, refused him
entrance. Dick Chambers would never forget the slight or the hotel.
By 1936, the property perched on the Arroyo Seco’s eastern edge already had a history. The original owner was Dr. Thomas Elliott. He was a member of the first group of Anglo settlers, and proposed Pasadena’s name based on a Chippewa Indian word meaning “of the valley.” Dr. Elliott’s two-story wood house passed into the hands of Mrs. Emma Bangs, who opened the Arroyo Vista Guest House in 1882, four years before Pasadena was incorporated. Mrs. Bangs’ boardinghouse thrived, especially among winter visitors from eastern states, and soon she was adding small cottages and other amenities to the grounds.
In 1905, the property was purchased by the newly formed Vista del Arroyo Company. Under the leadership of General Manager Henry Fowler, the company added buildings and more land to the hotel grounds. Over a dozen years, six annexes were added to the original hotel building and six more cottages were constructed on the grounds which had grown to seven acres. By 1913, hotel guests looking north across the canyon could marvel at the newly completed Colorado Street Bridge, the world’s highest concrete bridge.
By 1919, the Vista del Arroyo had attracted the attention of brilliant hotelier D.M. Linnard, whose company ran San Francisco’s Fairmont, San Diego’s Del Coronado, and the Del Monte Lodge at Pebble Beach among several others, including some in Pasadena. Linnard transformed the Vista into one of the nation’s grand resort hotels. Architects Sylvanus Marston and Garret Van Pelt were hired to design the two-story addition and expand the main building. They also added two outstanding features. On the front of the main building, they created a long palm-thatched pergola stretching from Grand Avenue to the entrance. On the building’s north, they built the Sun Lounge, where guests enjoyed the sunlight pouring through huge windows on both sides while gazing at the arroyo and the San Gabriel Mountains.
The Vista was fast becoming a favorite with locals for social events and with well-heeled easterners who came for the winter season. At another of his Pasadena hotels, The Maryland, Linnard had invited affluent guests to build private bungalows on the hotel’s property. He expanded the practice at the Vista. These bungalows were hardly small buildings, ranging in size from 3,000 to 13,000 square feet, some single family houses, others multiple apartments. The builder would occupy it for ten years, after which title would revert to the hotel, which would still reserve it for the original patron. Some twenty of these bungalows dotted the Vista’s grounds north of the main building and along the arroyo’s crest, giving the property the look of a Mediterranean village. Today, four of the most substantial bungalows remain, housing the Western Justice Center and several other non-profit organizations.
By the time Dick Chambers was refused entry in the mid-1930s, the Vista had changed hands again, undergone a major addition and renovation, and assumed the outward appearance it has today. The new owner’s architect George Wiemeyer added 400 rooms on six additional floors and a central, tiled belvedere tower, all in the Spanish Revival style popular at the time. The top two floors were reserved for grand suites, some featuring up to five bedrooms and four baths. On the first floor, in addition to the Sun Lounge on the north, guests could sip coffee in the eastern facing Morning Room. Meals were served in the elegant blue-and-gold motif Dining Room. Evenings could be spent in the Ballroom, where dances and cotillions were held or a show performed on the stage. Occasionally, even talking pictures were screened.
The Vista continued to attract an affluent clientele, even as the Depression took its toll on Pasadena’s other resort hotels, many of which closed. The Vista added to its luxuriance with formal floral gardens carpeting the western slope, new badminton and tennis courts, and the exquisite Venetian Plunge, a grand oval swimming pool surrounded by umbrella tables and cabañas. It seemed the grand life, for those who could afford it, might go on forever. Then, World War II put an end to the era.
Under the War Powers Act, the federal government acquired property for use in the war effort. In 1943, the U.S. Army took over the Vista and converted it into a hospital for the long-term care of soldiers wounded in the Pacific Theater. “The important thing is winning the war,” the hotel owner told the local newspaper, “and we are glad to help in any way possible.” The hotel’s luxurious apartments were transformed into hospital wards, the elegant Dining Room became a mess hall for patients and staff, and army green paint covered the once bright walls and ceilings. The Pasadena Area Station Hospital was dedicated in July 1943. The hospital also provided for soldiers’ wives, and quite a few babies were born there. Nowadays, the occasional visitor will drop in and tell the staff about being at the hospital during the war, and even a few have told of coming into the world there. Eventually, the hospital was named McCornack General Hospital, in honor of Brigadier General Condon C. McCornack. By the time it closed in 1949, hundreds of soldiers had been cared for in one of the busiest military hospitals in Southern California.
Six years after McCornack Hospital closed, Dick Chambers, who was practicing law in Arizona after his army service, was appointed by President Eisenhower to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit, then as now, encompasses the federal courts in nine western states including California and Arizona. Federal civil and criminal cases are tried in fifteen different district courts, bankruptcy cases are heard in an equal number of bankruptcy courts, and decisions in these jurisdictions may be brought to the U.S. Court of Appeals to be heard by a panel of three judges.
Ten years after the hospital closed, the Vista building was housing various federal government offices, including the local congressman’s field office, and army intelligence unit, and the U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Station. That same year, 1959, Dick Chambers became chief judge of the Ninth Circuit, responsible for overseeing all of the circuit’s courts including their space needs.
Over the next sixteen years, the federal courts grew as Congress passed new national laws and created new judgeships. The number of cases filed in the Ninth Circuit increased right along with the increase of population and business in the western states. As Judge Chambers realized the need for expanded court space in Southern California, he also remembered the former hotel in Pasadena from which he had been barred some forty years earlier. And, the government had declared the old hotel surplus property.
Judge Chambers now faced two tremendous obstacles. He had to convince his colleagues on the court that the building could be turned into a courthouse. He also had to convince Congress to appropriate the money to make that happen. One of Chambers’ colleagues called it “a wreck” when he first saw it. Former Circuit Judge Shirley Hufstedler, a local resident, was only slightly gentler, saying “when it was presented as a possibility for the Ninth Circuit, the great lady looked like a skid row fugitive.” Never the less, engineers found that the “great lady” had sound bones and just needed a makeover. Then circuit judge, now Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was placed in charge of lobbying officials in Washington. Finally, in 1979, Congress appropriated $9.8 million to seismically upgrade and restore the building, and the following year the Pasadena architectural firm of Neptune and Thomas was hired. For the next seven years, architect J. Rudy Freeman, Judge Kennedy, and Judge Chambers worked closely together to restore some of the Vista’s brilliance and adapt it for use by the Court of Appeals.
In 1981, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1986, the building was dedicated at ceremonies presided over by Chief Justice Warren Burger. Justice Kennedy recalled that the Ninth Circuit Judges “wanted the building to have elegance and formality, but with light and warmth.” And he concluded, “I think we got it.”
In 1993, the building was named the Richard H. Chambers U.S. Court of Appeals Building in honor of the man who was once turned away from its stately doors.