The Hotel of Mirth: Pasadena's Castle Green


I have always been enamored with Pasadena. There is an air of genteel sophistication, of East Coast preppiness about the city. I like the mansions on rolling green lawns that seem sprung from a Wharton novel, and the men and women in business suits who seem to have jobs that don't involve the entertainment industry. In my other life, I am part of that motley industry, and that is how I came to discover Castle Green. We were shooting a pilot, and I showed up for my 5:30 am call time. The pass van picked me up, sleepy and unkempt, and dropped me off on the grounds in Old Town Pasadena. And there, rising above the foggy California morning, was a Spanish-Moorish Colonial castle from another time, oversized and elegant.

Up close, Castle Green, once a luxury hotel, now a co-op apartment building, is almost unreal. The immaculate grounds seem ready for the romantic stroll of young love, and the deep porch awaits gossiping Edwardian ladies. Inside the dark and plush public rooms of rich woods and heavy fabrics, the feeling was otherworldly. I followed the scuffed cardboard runner, which welcomes every film set, up the marble staircase.

We were filming inside a gloriously shabby apartment, filled with cultural curios and first edition books. "We barely had to add anything," the set dresser told me. "This is what it looked like." I spent most of that first day on a balcony overlooking Pasadena's quaint Central Park, using my folded call sheet as a makeshift fan. The second day, we filmed on the famous rooftop, its nooks and crannies covered with potted plants and miss-matched chairs of various matte colors.

By the third day, I had come to feel comfortable in this dream like space. Almost too comfortable, almost wishing I could ghost-myself like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining." I would spend my eterna-life riding the wrought-iron elevator, flirting with specter bellboys and writing scintillating letters of personal intrigue in the formal parlor. We were told many artists and eccentrics lived in the building, and to not disturb them. But I never saw any residents, only my fellow film crew friends. As we were loading into vans to leave on the final day, I saw an old man in a corduroy jacket peering at us from a high window, smoking a pipe. Or maybe I didn't. At Castle Green, one's imagination is apt to run wild.

In A Very Short Time, The Most Prosperous City

Colonel George Gil Green

A great deal of imagination and cash went into the rapid rise of the town of Pasadena. What started out as a colony of Hoosiers escaping the icy Indiana winter of 1872-73, became, in little more than a decade, a boomtown. Soon after that, it was a world famous winter resort -- a city of Eastern millionaires who came to while away the mild winter days. In 1887, a clever businessman named Edward C. Webster financed a passenger station linked to the Intercontinental Santa Fe line in downtown Pasadena. Next to it, he built the small Hotel Webster, on the corner of Raymond and Kansas (now Green Street). His ingenious idea, using the railway to funnel Midwest and Eastern tourists directly to his hotel, was not lost on Colonel George Gil Green. Colonel Green helped finance the project, and when Webster went bust, he became the owner of the hotel.

Colonel G.G. Green was an interesting man. A resident of New Jersey and a Civil War veteran, he made his fortune selling quack medications with names like "Green's Ague Conquer" and "Green's August Flower." They were enormously popular. It is no wonder, as they were later revealed to contain a great deal of laudanum. Green fell in love with Southern California, and became a wintertime resident of a "delightful home in the foothills" of neighboring Altadena. 1

In January 1891, the newly improved hotel, now known as Hotel Green, was opened for the season under the management of a man known as Colonel Bowler. "The house is now in running order," commented the L.A. Times, "and is as complete as any hotel in this section of the state." By the end of the month it was already filling up with tourists. The social rooms of the hotel immediately became the center of Pasadena's emerging high society. The next month, the Valley Hunt Club held their third annual ball at the hotel. Only a year earlier the club of wealthy former Easterners had thrown the first annual "Tournament of Roses" parade on New Year's Day, to publicize the city's glorious weather. The scene at Hotel Green was equally glorious:

Hotel Green, 1896 | Adam Clark Vroman Collection, Pasadena Public Library
Hotel Green, 1896 | Adam Clark Vroman Collection, Pasadena Public Library.   

Colonel Green and his family joined in on the fun, hosting a surprise "hop" (dance) for his charming daughter at the hotel, and inviting guests for hikes and musical filled picnics near his home, where his son Harry merrily took pictures of boarders with a Kodak camera. In April of that year, President Benjamin Harrison stayed at the hotel during a visit to Pasadena. The visit seems to have been a comedy of errors. The gala at the hotel was ruined when the waiters got drunk before the arrival and ate all the fish. Teetotalers were furious that wine was to be served with the vanished meal. The next morning was wet and drizzling, much to the disappointment of proud residents.

So important was the hotel to Pasadena's economy and prestige that a dispute between Colonel Bowler and Colonel Green was mediated by an arbitration committee that included the Mayor of Pasadena. Bowler was relieved of his duties. For the next two decades the hotel would be managed by J.J. Holmes, Green's beloved brother-in-law, who would be hugely responsible for its gargantuan growth. The growth began in 1893, when the hotel was greatly expanded in Spanish-Moorish style, doubling its size and giving it 200 hotel rooms.

The winter of the 1890s were filled with brilliant cotillions, delightful card parties, and jolly banquets illuminated by the "soft light of wax candles under pink fairy shades and set in glittering crystal candelabras." Since guests often stayed the entire winter season, the hotel had a decidedly family atmosphere. At Christmas time guests assembled under a glittering Christmas tree, Santa appearing with gifts for all the children. Guests took turns "keeping house" and hosting card parties in the parlor, as if it was their own home. 4 This lovely home was about to get a lot larger.

Sports event on the grounds of Hotel Green | Los Angeles Public Library
Sports event on the grounds of Hotel Green | Los Angeles Public Library.   

The Most Superb Hostelry in the West

On January 16, 1889, the Hotel Green opened a magnificent annex, which we now know as Castle Green, to a group of 1000 rapturous guests. The Los Angeles Times enthused:

Designed by prominent Pasadena architect Frederick I. Roehrig, this 6-story Moorish fantasy of "steel, stone and brick" featured 60 suites, each with a private bath, telephone and bell. Downstairs were the public rooms, including a parlor, billiard room, card room, women's room, writing room, and children's room. These were finished with onyx, wainscoting based with green marble and bordered with carved cedar, and the floors were tiled with green and white mosaic. The basement housed a bowling alley, bicycle room, and shooting gallery. The much celebrated roof featured a sun room "covered entirely with glass," which doubled as a ballroom surrounded by an outdoor garden. There was a special alcove for musicians so that "when the nights are warm, the guests may dance in the open air under the rays of the full moon." Most ingenious of all was the 205-ft long bridge that connected the original building with the castle. Kitted out with "well cushioned circular seats," it became a favorite place to watch the annual Rose Parade.

Panoramic view of Hotel Green, looking northeast from Central Park ca. 1900 | Los Angeles Public Library
Panoramic view of Hotel Green, looking northeast from Central Park ca. 1900 | Los Angeles Public Library.   

Thus began the Hotel Green's most brilliant decade. The 1899-1900 season was so packed that hundreds of guests were turned away. So great was the demand, the hotel was further expanded in 1903. American royalty, including the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Roosevelts, all stayed at the mega-resort. Guests could indulge in golf, tennis, and croquet on the grounds. Surprisingly to modern minds, the hotel was closed to guests each summer, although many wished it had remained open to "rouse the city from its summer lethargy." J.J. Holmes and his family would return to their own personal home these months, though he was often occupied in hotel related shopping expeditions in the off season.

But during the season, the hotel pulsed with life and intrigue. In the sun parlor one could find Izzy Durham, a Philadelphia gang boss who was now "a broken and dejected old man. All day he sits in the sunlight with his hat pulled down well over his head and a faraway look in his strong old eyes, which used to flash like an eagles when he issued orders." 6 In the hallway, a woman spied on another woman she was sure was living in sin. Jewel thieves periodically stalked the expansive halls. Wealthy young people amused themselves in the Romanesque room with a "ghostly dance" where they "enveloped themselves in sheets, swathed their heads in pillow cases and made merry." 7

'Tickling Goldfish at Hotel Green' | Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1915
'Tickling Goldfish at Hotel Green' | Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1915.   

Right out of a Henry James novel is the tale of St. Louis playboy Byron F. Hobart and high spirited Chicago heiress Catherine Young. Catherine was already notorious for wearing male attire and galloping through the streets of Pasadena a season earlier. But her fame grew in 1902 when, while staying at the rival Raymond Hotel, she met Hobart, a guest at the Hotel Green. They were wed that same day, without parental consent, and spirited back to their respective hotels. Once Hobart, who lived off his wealthy father, got back to his room he became so distraught over existing conditions and the contemplation of the anticipated scene with an irate father-in-law that he sent for a man friend whose youth made him a sympathetic confidant. This young man, desirous of lending a helping hand, called in for advice a woman old enough and wise enough in the ways of the world to be capable of sound counsel and strenuous action. The result was the hurried ordering of a closed cab, in which the nervous bridegroom and resolute matron left the Green for the Raymond where they asked for Mr. and Mrs. Otto Young and explained the doubtful escapade. 8

A horrible row ensued. But it seems Catherine changed her parents' minds. The next day the happy couple headed to St. Louis, met by "the younger hotel guests at the station who were ready with the usual rice accompaniment, so that good wishes, white ribbons, flowers and the Chinese wedding cereals went with them on their hastily-undertaken matrimonial journey."

There were many balls. There was a "jungle dance" where 600 people danced the tango as elephants, and monkeys from the Selig Film Company roamed about the rainforest greenery. The highly offensive "immigration ball" was held. It was attended by 1000 couples who were "escorted down a gangplank" and invited to sit on trunks in the ballroom, which had been transformed into a "miniature Ellis Island." But despite the increasingly gimmicky entertainments, the resort began to decline as tastes and society changed.

In 1916, old Colonel Green leased the property to Daniel M. Linnard. The property was split in two -- the original building was to be turned into a "medium priced hotel," while Castle Green would cater to upper class guests. 9 By 1924 the hotel had been sold to a group of assorted capitalists, including Linnard. Castle Green became an "own-your-own" apartment building, while part of the original building continued life as a more pedestrian hotel. Much of the original building was torn down in 1935.

The party was over.

Pacific Electric cars in front of the Hotel Green, ca. 1925 | Los Angeles Public Library
Pacific Electric cars in front of the Hotel Green, ca. 1925 | Los Angeles Public Library.   

The Twilight Club

The fifty newly renovated apartments in Castle Green were quickly sold to Pasadena's eccentric elite, many who were elderly. What was left of the original building continued on as a hotel, until it also became a residence, first for the indigent and then for the elderly. Obituaries over the next decades paid tribute to the characters who occupied Castle Green -- the Oriental art authority, the descendant of Daniel Boone, the childhood friend of President Garfield, the old sculptor who was impaled when he fell from his fifth floor balcony. The common rooms were often the scene of weddings and club events. The hotel was featured in numerous TV shows and movies, including "The Sting."

Old Town Pasadena declined, and by the '60s it was a seedy place filled with transient hotels and shady bookstores. Castle Green residents complained of the shouts from pimps and the music from discos' that blared into the night. During the '80s the area was slowly brought back to life. In 1989, the Castle was painstakingly renovated with the help of a large state grant.

Renovations of one form or another are ongoing and no doubt always will be. The Castle is once again an exclusive address in an upscale, charming area. Apartments are hardly ever available. They are filled with a community of artistic eccentrics, who are said to congregate on the roof in the evening, sitting on mismatched thrift store chairs. Perhaps, at night as they watch the sun slowly set, they hear the strains of a waltz echoing over the roof. A roof where so many couples once danced until the early hours of the morning.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares


1 "Col. green as host: he entertains his friends most sumptuously" Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1891
2 "A brilliant hop at the hotel green" Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1891
3 "Harrison departs" Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1891
4 "Hotel green notes" Los Angeles Times, January 1892
5 "Hotel Green Pasadena" Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1898
6 "Izzy Durham the quondam" Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1906
7"Battle with cards" Los Angeles Times, April 1906
8"Marry and wed in a day" Los Angeles Times, March 5 1902
9"Linnard leases Green" Los Angeles Times, July 8, 1916